To view this page on our website and to see additional resources perhaps not showing up in the email, click here.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you 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 who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
As we get into today’s short passage from Philippians 2, it’s to be strongly noted that there is some incredible correlation between Philippians 2:12-13 and Exodus 20. If you don’t know Exodus 20’s content offhand, it’s the place in Scripture where Moses receives the Ten Commandments, though the chapter in greater fullness also steps into the circumstances surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments. Before moving into Exodus, let’s catch up on this passage as to how Paul went from talking about Jesus and His mindset from the previous verses (5-11) into obedience, sanctification and the presence of God at work in believers in bringing about their own obedience to Him.
First of all, therefore. “Therefore” is always a significant word in Scripture, especially the New Testament, because it is signifying a point to be made on the basis of previously stated information. When I read New Testament passages, it’s words like therefore, because, but, even the simple word and that help draw forth the thought flow of the verses. Always remember that much of the Bible is a recorded train of thought, especially New Testament epistles: there is a logic that flows and turns and develops, kind of like a river if you will.
Verses 5-11 form the passage backing the word “therefore” to be stated, and the general idea is that Christ placed His focus on serving the Father to the point of His death on the cross. His obedience was not an obedience simply given for human audiences; He truly obeyed God through and through. Jesus has therefore, contextually, served as our example for how to live with a mind not simply set on ourselves. Paul uses this example of Jesus after he says in the previous verses (3-4) to have a humble mindset of one’s self and to look out not only for one’s own interests, but also for the interests of one another. Even this admonition follows the principle of placing our focus on the Lord, which in turn causes us to diminish in the tendency to be self-absorbed. It’s hard to set our minds on Christ while also being consumed with our own desires, which is why the call to focus on Him is quite powerful from a practical standpoint for believers to implement in their lives.
The mind is like a vacuum; we may try to stop focusing on ourselves, but if we don’t find the appropriate replacement, inevitably the void will fill in once again where it left off. If we are to love others as ourselves, the best way to do so is to seek God more with the result of loving others better. All of this to say that the word “therefore” is powerful in Philippians 2:12, for focusing our faith and lives on Christ is the grounds for growth, joy, and obedience as Christians, as well as the way we relate to one another.
Secondly, notice Paul’s commendation to the Philippian believers: “my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.” What is Paul saying here? The believers are obeying God, not because of Paul’s direct attention, but because of God having wrought spiritual character within them. If you’ve ever seen a class of children who somehow go from being studious and quiet to jumping out of their chairs, shouting, getting in fights or drawing on chalkboards and such, then you’ve seen obedience that is tempered by accountability rather than character. Character moves us to obey whether the teacher is in the class or not, and in a more broad sense, holds us accountable within rather than simply because of the pressure or accountability from without. If Christianity is nothing more than a stage act, we are in trouble, because Scripture tells us that the presence of the Holy Spirit within is a pledge of our eternal inheritance (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5; Ephesians 1:4). If all we have is “religious stage apparel” but no substance to the form, there is cause for concern over the validity of our salvation testimony.
If our faith is in the Lord and the Spirit is within us, obedience must be recognized as something that often accompanies an awareness of the presence of God. To paraphrase Jerry Bridges from his book “Respectable Sins,” godliness is living in light of an awareness of God’s presence. Righteousness, as he states in his book, is essentially the activity that flows from that awareness. In line with the whole passage, and the book of Philippians for that matter, Paul’s commendation of their obedience is deeply tied to their focus on the Lord rather than a focus on spiritual leaders like himself. Whether Paul is present or absent, one thing is for certain: God is always present. If they (or we) are to live obediently with consistency, obedience will only develop with a living awareness of the presence of God, as well as an intention to please Him most with what we do. I was challenged years ago that whenever we choose to sin, we are in essence choosing “practical atheism,” believing in God’s existence but absolving it from our minds to ease the tension of choosing what we know is wrong.
Paul’s primary thrust here is a challenge to us as well: who are we living for? Is our obedience to God for Him or for a human audience? Who are trying to please?
Now, third and finally, let’s come to the last part of Philippians 2:12-13 and also see the correlation to Exodus 20 (and Hebrews 12:18-21). “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” The command to “work out your own salvation” is not a call to maintain salvation as though it could be lost, or that they had some part in saving themselves. The best theological term to be related here would be sanctification, which is the transformative process of the believer between initial salvation and glorification. In saying that, know that it is extremely important that our theology of salvation be biblical, that a believer doesn’t just believe and go 20, 30, 40, 50 years without having a working relationship with God to just wind up in glory; the true trajectory of the believer is a coursing path through life of ups and downs, faith as well as moments of failure, but the general course is on the up and up. Think of sanctification like a stock market graph, the lows getting higher and the highs getting higher as one moves towards glory. Does it mean perfection on the way? No, but it does mean growth that moves overall in the right direction.
Sanctification, as well, is both an active and passive transformation in that we are called to submit and serve and obey actively, but passively we are being drawn into that very plan by the Sovereign hand of God. This active and passive nature of sanctification is the essence of verse 12b-13.
Additionally, there is a peculiar wording used in these two verses when it says “fear and trembling.” The Greek words in English would be phobos and tromos: think phobias and tremors or shaking. If you’ve read Scripture much, you may be reminded of that phrasing being used elsewhere. Hebrews 12:18-21 will bring it up:
18 For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest,
19 and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.
20 (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.”
21 And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”
Going back to Exodus 20, almost immediately after the Ten Commandments are dictated, we see these verses:
18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off.
19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-20)
Notice that both Hebrews and Exodus capture the emotion of fear to the point of trembling. Perhaps Exodus 20:20 might help the best in relationship to obedience as it refers to a fear of God being a helpful aid in not sinning. When that fear is lost, so too does the inner inhibition to sin shrink up as well. Were Moses and the Israelites deeply aware of the presence of God in Exodus 20? Absolutely, and that translated into somewhat of a spiritual paralysis before God. Unfortunately, this didn’t last too long because by Exodus 32, they were crafting a golden calf to worship while Moses had been on the mountain for a long time, at least in their estimation.
What Philippians 2:12-13 is most likely referencing, therefore, is the presence of God not simply on a mountain full of fire and darkness and thunder, but His residence within. It both correlates and contrasts with Exodus 20. Not only does He reside within, but the heart of those commandments given on Mt. Sinai is placed within us as well. Like an anchor to the soul, honoring God and living under His command becomes something that may be tested, but is hard to resist when it’s now a part of who we are.
“Work out your salvation (sanctification) with fear and trembling, for (because) it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure.” The cause of fear and trembling is therefore tied not to scary circumstances but to an observation of the Holy Spirit within us at work in our hearts and lives. Spiritual sensitivity, conviction, a desire for God, hearing Him through His word and so forth–these don’t just happen, they are signs of spiritual life. When trusting God becomes foundational to the way we live our lives and not just a fleeting moment of spoken faith, we are talking about the Spirit-born faith spelled out in the Bible.
No one stays true to God long-term on God’s terms without God having taken residency within them and putting His word into their hearts. No one obeys with or without a human audience without a focus on pleasing God rather than just pleasing men. Nevertheless, the beauty of this verse as well is found in seeing God at work in us and being in awe of that work that He’s doing. Yes, we can live to serve God and do many religious activities, but nothing can bring comfort to the soul like watching God at work within one’s self. As a pastor, I also take great joy in watching God at work in others, and for the small parts I can play in helping, I’m thankful to see Him moving in them through the use of His word and bringing joy to their souls in their walk with Him.
One of the interesting things I’ve found in my time reading Scripture is drawing the connection as to what an author is thinking about when they’re writing a particular passage of Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In this passage, we are seeing the difference between an external God and an external Law and a modern-day believer who also has God within them and His law written on their hearts as well. Is this found in the Bible? Yes, in Hebrews 8:8-10:
8 Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah–
9 “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD.
10 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
While these verses speak specifically to the Israelites, we know from the New Testament such as in Acts 2:17-21 that the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church is the giving of His presence within as well as the word being illuminated to the heart.
The simple takeaway today is this: take heart in the Lord and place your focus on Him. If you’ve seen Him at work in you, rejoice in that and continue to follow Him in your sanctification as you make your way to glorification. God calls us to honor, serve, and obey Him, but He also sovereignly guides us and empowers us in that calling. Salvation begins with faith in Jesus Christ, it is continued on with sanctification in Christ through the means of faith, and it is consummated with glorification as our hope is fulfilled in the glorious presence of our Lord.
Thank you for your time in worship today. May God bless you as you ponder His word.
Prayer from Pastor Sam:
Lord, help us to keep our eyes on You. Help us to remember the mission to which we’ve been called, and to surrender daily to You within Your desires for us. Forgive us for the many times we doubt You or selfishly cling to our own desires and help us to realign with You today. If anyone reading this doesn’t have a real relationship with You, I pray for them, that You’d impress upon them that need to call out to you in faith today for salvation. Please be with the many folks struggling with sickness and we pray comfort for them today. Help us to watch our walk in this world and our attitudes for that matter. We pray for our country and for our leaders and the great spiritual need of the Gospel that exists both in the U.S. and abroad. I pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.