What does it take to get under your skin? What lights your fuse? What sets you off? What makes you complain? What is it that causes you to jump into a fruitless argument? As Christians we are called to “let our manner of life – as citizens of Heaven – be worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
We are not to be “conformed to this world, but [we are to] be transformed by the renewing of our minds [as we] love one another with brotherly affection [and] bless those who persecute us (instead of cursing them) [and] so far as it depends on us, (we are to) live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:2, 10, 14, 18).
This seems like a really tall order in our day-and-age. I often catch myself asking myself “what part of the instructions of God’s Word, do I not understand?”
While we live “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15) I find it very difficult to not let things get under my skin; to not let my fuse get lit up like a stick of dynamite; to not go off at the slightest hint of provocation; to not be overwhelmed by a complaining spirit; to not possess an argumentative attitude. I find these things hard in this day and age.
Just to be clear, I firmly believe we are living in a culture where the prophet Isaiah would say “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20).
The bottom line here is that we all know that the world around us is spinning out of control in a sin-filled death-spiral. The world we live in is erupting at a chaotic rate.
Babies are being murdered in the womb by the hundreds on a daily basis. Racial, ethnic and political tensions are erupting out of the deep wounds of past and present sinful and evil desires.
Minority people groups along with the poor and the disenfranchised are often exploited by the rich and the powerful for personal and political gain.
The quote unquote sexual revolution we are living in at the moment is normalizing and celebrating lifestyles and behaviors that God says are not only offensive and sinful acts of rebellion and war against him but are also destructive to the well-being of individuals in a society.
We are watching in heartbroken horror as cities burn, people are being murdered senselessly and the powers that be are capitalizing on these atrocities at the expense of younger generations for the advancement of their own self-centered agendas.
But God’s Word speaks into the darkness that is closing in around us. Paul’s words to the Philippian church are especially helpful here:
PHILIPPIANS 2:12 – 18
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
It’s not hard to see that we are living “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” just like the Philippian church was (Phil. 2:15). The cultural mindset in Philippi was a Roman mindset.
Like the Romans, the people in Philippi were infatuated with self-expression, self-gratification and self-advancement at any cost. They loved exploring an all-roads leads to Heaven kind of spirituality alongside the practice of sexual deviousness and witchcraft of every conceivable sort.
The culture of Philippi would give Christians ample reason to lose their cool; to engage in culture wars; to cozy up with powerful and political leaders; to complain about everything that was going wrong and to argue about what needed to be done to make things right. The culture in Philippi, like the one we live in currently, was a powder keg getting ready to explode. Let’s not forget that the Roman Empire imploded roughly 49 years after this letter was written to the Philippian believers.
The Philippian culture was headed towards self-destruction and Paul wants the Philippian believers to “shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:16). Paul doesn’t ask them to rebuild the culture or to transform the culture; he commands them to “shine as lights in the world.”
But how does the apostle Paul expect the Philippian believers to do this? How are they supposed to “shine as lights… in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15, 16)?
#1: WE ARE TO BEGIN WITH THE RIGHT FOUNDATION (V. 12)
If the foundation isn’t right, then the house will crumble. The apostle Paul knows this, so he reminds the Philippians that Jesus-Christ is the foundation and the chief cornerstone of the church and he reminds them of this with one single word.
That one single word is the word “Therefore” (v. 12). Whenever we see the word “therefore” we must ask “what’s the therefore there for?”
The answer here is that the word “therefore” (v. 12) points us back to the foundation that the apostle Paul just built in his grand description of the self-humiliation and super-exaltation of Christ (Hughes 2013: 99).
The high theology of Christ’s humility (Phil. 2:5 – 8) alongside the high theology of Christ’s exaltation (Phil. 2:9 – 11) act like a bone crushing, meat tenderizing hammer to our self-centeredness and our pride (Phil. 2:3) so that we can receive the ground-level practical instructions for living our lives as saved-citizens of Heaven (Phil. 1:27) in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Hughes 2013: 99 – 100).
If our foundation for living as shining lights in a crooked and twisted world is anything less than Christ, then the house of our holiness will crumble.
The bottom line here is that we must begin with the foundation of Christ crucified, Christ risen and Christ returning again if we are to have any hope of shining as lights in a dark world.
#2: WE ARE TO BE OBEDIENT TO THE GOSPEL (VV. 12 – 13)
Obedience to the gospel means not only receiving salvation (eternal assurance of Heaven) but also growing in sanctification (increasing in holiness as we travel towards Heaven).
This is why the apostle Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but 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 work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12 – 13).
We are to be obedient to the gospel as we strive to grow in holiness by the grace and power of God. Philippians 1:6 comes alongside this principle as it reminds us that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
These verses remind me that God is at work inside of us which gives us the confidence to give close attention to our personal conduct as we live out our salvation in Christ (Hughes 2013: 100).
The work that God takes pleasure in doing inside of us is the work of transforming our will (desires and decisions) and our work (behaviors).
When we consistently grapple with the truths of the gospel, Christ crucified, Christ risen, and Christ returning, then we are compelled to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling at the thought of God’s grace and mercy in the cross, the empty tomb and our heavenly inheritance.
In short, if we’ve truly believed the gospel for salvation then we will consistently become obedient to the gospel in our day-to-day holiness.
#3: WE ARE TO BE BLAMELESS AND INNOCENT CHILDREN (VV. 14 – 16)
The apostle Paul doesn’t want to leave the concept of obedience to mere speculation so he makes things super practical when he says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2:14 – 16).
The interesting thing about these verses is that you might find the portion about shining as lights in the world pasted all over Christian t-shirts, Christian social media pages, Christian coffee mugs, etc. as though there is some kind of pie in the sky romantic ideal of standing our ground and fighting for the truth of the gospel while the world goes to hell in a hand basket.
And of course, this kind of textual pillaging has been done since the Garden of Eden where God’s words are taken out of context and distorted to sound really appealing while losing the original thrust of the intended application.
The reality here is that we don’t need to imagine what it means to live as “shining lights in a dark and perverse world”, God is clear that we can do this by not complaining or arguing.
But we love to make excuses for ourselves because we are redeemed and righteous. Therefore, we know what’s ok to complain about and what’s ok to argue about even though God says, “DO ALL THINGS without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:14).
The reality here is that it makes us uncomfortable to admit that we sin when we complain and argue. Rather than admitting actual sin we downplay things, we duck and cover, we hide, we blame others and we excuse our sin as we dress it up with the lipstick of religious language.
Complaining (grumbling as Paul puts it) is reminiscent of Israel’s whining and complaining in the wilderness in Exodus 16:12 and the arguing (or disputing as Paul puts it) evokes to our English ears the petty dialogue that calls everything into question; the reality is that complaining and arguing are not minor blemishes of morality, peripheral human weaknesses in an otherwise flawless Christian spectacle; instead, these sins, are part of the watershed of the Christian life (Hughes 2013: 102).
Critical, complaining spirits are the historic bane of the church and are a specifically bright stain on the modern McChurch worshippers who leave their church to go down the street to find a church more to their liking (Hughes 2013: 102).
The reality here is that those who persist in complaining and arguing are not obedient to Christ and his gospel and are openly rejecting the divine call to “work out your own salvation.”
Complainers, arguers, disobedient-to-the-gospel folks, are undermining clear instructions for a gospel-centered church family’s witness in a community and if we persist in being these people then we must understand that when we finally stand before our Savior, we will answer to him with shame (Hughes 2013: 102).
The question here is: Are we going to travel towards our Heavenly Promised Land like Israel in the wilderness (complaining and arguing) or are we going to travel like Israel in the Conquest (confident of the victory that lies in front of us)?
The way of the world is to travel the highways of complaining and arguing but the dirt-road way of Jesus is to speak truth in love, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of our neighbors and to endure suffering in silence.
The church becomes the cultural joke of a “crooked and twisted generation” when she is known for her complaining and her arguing; this is the reason that fear, and trembling are the key to being blameless and innocent children.
Living in humble harmony with one another and considering others as more important than ourselves, helps us to shine resurrection-light in a dark world as we hold fast to the hope of the gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ.
The bottom line here is that God has called us to be blameless and innocent children who shine like lights in the midst of a dark and perverse world as we cling to the word of life with every ounce of Spiritual energy inside of us.
We are to be blameless and innocent children who are obedient to the gospel and the way that we get this done is by not complaining and by not arguing in everything that we do.
#4: WE ARE TO BE PARTNERS IN JOYFUL MINISTRY (VV. 17 – 18)
The apostle Paul concludes his very practical instruction for shining as lights in a dark and perverse world by saying that “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Phil. 2:17 – 18).
What this teaches us is that our obedience to the gospel, founded on the message of Christ’s humility and exaltation, resulting in our blameless and innocent conduct, is to be filled with joy.
We are not to travel through this life like grumpy old stooges with scowling looks on our faces.
We are to be filled with joy knowing that our sacrifice and our suffering in silence and our service in our communities still pales in comparison with the cross that Jesus bore on our behalf.
When Paul calls the Philippians to joyful partnership in the ministry, he calls them (and us) to this high calling in view of the high theology of the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ crucified, risen and returning in glory.
In conclusion, as I studied and prayed my way through this passage, I was convicted of my own propensity to complain and argue.
As I surveyed the foundation of Christ’s humility and exaltation, the calling to be obedient to the gospel, the calling to be blameless and innocent as well as the calling to be partners in joyful ministry, I was reminded once again of Christ’s perfection in my place.
Jesus faced the humility of the cross on my behalf when I was a rebellious enemy of his. Jesus walked in complete and perfect gospel-centered obedience before I even had the chance to mess things up. Jesus was absolutely blameless and innocent and yet he died a criminal’s death for me.
As far as joyful ministry is concerned, I can’t find any other perfect example other than Christ who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross and despised the shame to pay my ransom and is now seated exalted at the right hand of the Father in Heaven” (Heb. 12:2).
When I survey these principles in their totality, I am left wondering what I actually have to complain or argue about.
When I remember that Christ did all of these things perfectly for me then I am encouraged and empowered to live my life in a manner that is worthy of the gospel as I shine like a light in a crooked and twisted generation.
When I find myself kneeling down at the foot of a bloody cross, in the doorway of an empty tomb, holding onto the promise of Heaven, then I find myself free from my sinful desire to complain and argue.
Would you join me in that place today?