"Finding Joy and Purpose in God's Work"
October 28, 2007 Philippians 2:12-30
Working in Utopia
[group sharing opportunity: "The hardest part about my work is..."]
How keen are you to work? The Bible commends those who have are eager to work; the Proverbs 31(17) woman "sets about her work vigorously"; Ecclesiastes (2:24; 3:22) maintains there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, to find satisfaction in it; Paul urged believers to make it their ambition to work with their hands, among other things (1Thess 4:11).
But work is not always enjoyable; it can be draining, even soul-destroying. In agrarian societies, farmers worked long hours and the labour was strenuous. After the industrial revolution, factory work often put employees doing simple, limited, repetitive tasks on an assembly line. In the modern commuter society, merely getting to work can involve monotonous rush-hour traffic, and huge corporations may make a person feel they and their work are not very important. If you're stuck at a desk, for example, doing work that's not challenging or doesn't match your skill set, work can be pretty dull; it's hard to find satisfaction in a job like that.
Granted, conditions have improved more or less over the decades. Here are some office work rules issued in 1852 that were recently found in the ruins of an old factory in Scotland. Prepare yourself, the owner thought these conditions were "near Utopian":
* This firm has reduced the hours of work, and the clerical staff will now only have to be present between the hours of 7 AM and 6 PM. * Daily prayers will be held each morning in the main office.The clerical staff will be present. * Clothing must be of sober nature.The clerical staff will not disport themselves in raiment of bright colours. * A stove is provided for the benefit of the clerical staff.Coal and wood must be kept in the locker.It is recommended that each member of the clerical staff bring four pounds of coal each day during cold weather. * No member of the clerical staff may leave the room without permission from Mr Rogers.The calls of nature are permitted and clerical staff may use the garden below the second gate.This area must be kept in good order. * No talking is allowed during business hours... * Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between 11:30 AM and noon, but work will not on any account cease. * The owners recognize the generosity of the new Labour Laws, but will expect a great rise in output of work in compensation for these near Utopian conditions.
How'd you like to work for that establishment?! Whatever the status of your workaday-world, there is good news. The Lord calls us into the work of sharing Good News, a service in which He supplies joy and purpose. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he describes a Christian worker's Posture, Power, Purity, and Pouring.
The Worker's POSTURE: in Christ, freed from self-focus
First, the worker's Posture - not whether you're bending or standing up straight, but the mental attitude with which you approach tasks to which God directs you. Php 2:12 begins, "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed..." It's been wisely said, "when you see a 'therefore', go back and find what it's 'there for'". It points back to the previous section as a basis for what's about to be said. The previous 11 verses describe a believer's humble and obedient attitude as a reflection of Christ's.
It's not a question of pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps and somehow manufacturing these qualities by ourselves: they're available for us to put on by virtue of our union with Jesus through trusting in Him. V1, "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship (we talked about that last week) with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion (from those 'innards' of Christ back in 1:8) - all that follows flows out of these resources that are ours by connecting to Jesus Christ through faith. He's our Source, our Reservoir. That's how Paul can go on in v2 and say to be "like-minded, having the same love..."
What's the motto of our time? "Do Your Own Thing." Be selfish. But what Paul commands in vv3-4 flies right in the face of today's philosophy. Because we are given significance and security in Christ, we're empowered to go beyond selfishness to live for others. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves [wow!]. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
The media would encourage us to pamper ourselves, do everything we can to have more and look better than the next person - put self on a pedestal. The mind of Christ, however, takes the focus of self and finds fulfilment in putting others first.
V5, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus..." Then in 6-11 come these beautiful poetic verses, probably from an early Christian hymn, praising Jesus' humility and obedience for our sakes, prior to His post-Resurrection exaltation. He wasn't 'grasping' (v6) but self-minimizing, v7 "made Himself nothing"; there are two stages really - first, v6, though existing as part of the Godhead, a full member of the Trinity before time began, He put off His God-ness in the sense of immortal powers and became confined to a mortal human body; v7 He took the form of a servant - human likeness. Second, v8, once He'd become a human, Jesus gave up even that - "He humbled Himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!" The living man with so much potential, drawing such big crowds He couldn't even enter a town He was so popular - this 'star' became a crucified corpse, absorbing on the cross the punishment for our sins that ought to have been yours and mine.
So the worker's Posture is not proud, conceited, focussed on self; but, blessed by grace, we are freed to be humble, obedient, responsive to legitimate authority, putting others ahead of ourselves, concerned with meeting THEIR needs not MY wants. Quite contrary to consumerism and "me first".
Paul doesn't just talk about it, he lives it - and mentors it. He holds up the example of Timothy in vv19-24. V20, what's special about Timothy? "I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare." Next verse says why this is so unusual: "For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ."
Timothy has demonstrated his capability and trustworthiness. V22 he "has proved himself, because as a son with his father (there obedience is implied) he has served (lit. slaved) with me in the work of the gospel." Timothy was content to respect Paul's authority, pitch in and do some of the 'grunt' work required for the enterprise - probably involving a lot of wearying journeys, carrying messages back and forth, long nights spent shivering under the stars, intervening in church conflicts, and trying to set belligerent heretics straight. This was no picnic! But Timothy put up with the working conditions because he genuinely cared about the believers' welfare, and what mattered to Jesus. He exhibited a humble, obedient, other-centred servant posture.
The Worker's POWER: Working Out What God Works In
Work takes effort, it requires power and strength. There's effort involved. In vv12-13 Paul not only exhorts Christians to work ardently, he also reveals where we can find strength to do that work. V12, he says, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." It's not that we could possibly EARN salvation by our works; but genuine faith expresses itself practically. James 2(18-22) reminds us Abraham's faith was made complete by what he did; faith without deeds is useless. (I like the line in the Rich Mullins song - "Faith without works...like a song you can't sing...is about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.") Paul told the Galatians (5:6), "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Salvation is to be worked out. Jesus said, "he who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Mt 24:13) There's effort required to live a Christian life; Peter urged, "make every effort to add to your faith goodness...knowledge...self-control...perseverance...godliness...brotherly kindness...love." (2Pe 1:5-7) Those qualities sound nice, but they take hard work and discipline to produce in our lives.
"Work out your salvation..." Sounds like a good Arminian verse, as if it depends on human effort. Commentator Robinson notes, "He exhorts as if he were an Arminian in addressing men. He prays as if he were a Calvinist in addressing God and feels no inconsistency in the two attitudes. Paul makes no attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human free agency, but boldly proclaims both."
We're to work out our salvation "with fear and trembling". That's not a theme commonly preached these days! You're more likely to hear, "Jesus wants to be your best friend." While that's true, stopping at 'friend' doesn't adequately convey the respect and honour and allegiance due One who, just a few verses earlier, has been exalted by God to the highest place, and at whose name every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess His Lordship (9-11). What is John's reaction in the book of Revelation upon seeing the Risen Christ, with a voice like Niagara and a face shining as bright as the sun? "When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead." (Rev 1:17) Serve the Lord reverently, with fear and trembling. Not casually or presumptuously, like Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu who approached God with unauthorized fire and were immediately burned to a crisp (Lev 10:1f) Moses recalled the Lord had said, "Among those who approach me I will show Myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honoured." In the New Testament, we have the example of Ananias and Sapphira, trying to be deceitful about their offering; when they were struck dead, "great fear seized" the whole church and all those who heard about it.
Yet, the work is not about human effort. Read on: v13, "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." As believers, our part is simply to WORK OUT what God WORKS IN us. The human effort is an outflow from divine grace. Astounding - that God should be actually working IN us. This is where Christianity parts company with "Religion": most world religions are about human attempts or means or rituals trying to get right with God. Christianity is about God's astonishing initiative to reconcile a world of hopeless sinners to Himself through Jesus (2Cor 5:19). Receiving Him inside is the key.
Think about this line carefully: "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." His power is released inside us; He even gives us the will, the desire, the determination; from that, He gives us also the ability to apply our selves (work, or act) according to (within the guidelines of, steered along the banks of the river of) His good purpose. Ah, purpose! That's what we're hankering for deep-down. This is the solution for the post-modern quest for meaning beyond crass materialism or entertainment. As Hebrews 13(20f) rephrases it, "May the God of peace...equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ..."
There was a great line in Chariots of Fire, the movie about Olympic runner Eric Liddell. It's placed first at the end of a race in the UK, then re-surfaces at the end of the movie when he wins the 400 metre race. It's about where we find the power to run the race of our lives with perseverance. Liddell explains, "I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul...And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, 'Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek Me, you shall ever surely find Me.' If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race." The power comes from within, hooking up to Jesus' dominion, giving Him complete control.
The Worker's PURITY: Not This, but That
"If with all your hearts, you truly seek Me..." Here we're getting into the worker's Purity, seeking just one thing in the core of our being.
Just what IS the 'work'? Paul doesn't really say the "what", he's vague - and has to be, for the particular work God calls us to is different for each one. Instead Paul talks more about the "how", our manner of working, and the singularity of focus. For many of us, this will be hard enough!
V14, speaking negatively, what it's NOT: we're to do everything "without complaining (lit.murmuring/ grumbling) or arguing (disputing)." Is there anybody else here that gets this feeling, you just HAVE to be RIGHT? (Maybe we should be asking your co-workers!)
V15b, "without fault in a crooked and depraved generation." NLT "Live clean, innocent lives...in a world full of crooked and perverse people." It's OK if you find not many of the TV channels or videos appeal to you; they shouldn't! Train yourself to be selective. And if you think Paul's being unnecessarily critical here, both Jesus and Peter used similar language to describe their times (Mt 17:17; Ac 2:40).
What are we to be, positively stated? 15, "so that you may become blameless and PURE..." The word means unadulterated, unmixed; sin and Satan would entice us with multiple factors that would sidetrack us. The enemy's goal is right there in 21, attracting everyone to seek "his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." By contrast, Jesus calls us to "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness" - and all the rest will follow. But get that first.
Further on in 15, "shine like stars in the universe" in the midst of such a darkened, rebellious world. Ever feel odd for not following the crowd because you're heeding your conscience? Christians ought to stand out because you're just NOT doing what 'everybody else' is doing. Get used to it - the road is narrow and few find it (Mt 7:14). In heaven you won't be frying either, and all those past tempting attractions in human life will seem as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing God's presence and fellowship.
V16 reveals the Christian's main activity in God's work: "as you hold out the word of life". Have a clear message, in your own words, of how Jesus has saved you and made a difference in your life. Be a walking exhibit or poster-board for the news about Jesus. It's a word of LIFE: in the words of the father of John the Baptist, a word about the One who came to us from heaven "to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace." (Lk 1:79) Be consistent; be clear; be caring - others will want what you've got, in Jesus.
The Worker's POURING: Surprising Joy in being a Libation
We've talked about the worker's Posture, the worker's Power, the worker's Purity, now finally - the worker's Pouring. What's that? Letting Holy Spirit ointment out of the bottle; allowing the juice to be released from the Vine.
V17, Paul writes, "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you." Paul could easily be killed anytime as a martyr for his beliefs; that's why he's in prison, awaiting trial. The word-picture comes from heathen or Jewish rituals in which, once the sacrifice was killed and tied to the altar, before ignition the priest would take a goblet and pour out a drink-offering on top of the carcass. Paul's saying, if he were to die, he'd just be 'topping off' the sacrifice and service coming from the faith of all the churches; this isn't just about the apostles, but all believers sacrificing and working.
In 2:7 Jesus "made Himself nothing", lit."emptied Himself", poured Himself out. There's a real cost to discipleship, it may take all you have, it's risky. Consider Epaphroditus in vv25 on: Paul calls him 'fellow worker, fellow soldier', sent by the church at Philippi to bring a monetary gift and stick around to look after Paul's needs. What happened? 27, "Indeed he was ill, and almost died." 30, "He almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life" to provide help as the Philippians' stand-in.
That's a high price we're talking about here! Being completely poured out, almost dying, risking one's life...But the surprising thing is that the emotion associated is not fear or dread, but JOY! Look again at the end of 17, "But even if I am being poured out....I am glad and rejoice with all of you.(18) So you too (those sacrificing and serving) should be glad and rejoice with me." V29, they were to welcome Epaphroditus in the Lord "with great joy".
A delightful uplift - joy, one aspect of the Spirit's 'fruit' (Gal 5:22f) - is experienced by those who have completely abandoned/relinquished their survival and security into God's sovereign control and pleasure. When you reach that point, there's NOTHING Satan can do to threaten you any more.
In closing, the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi sums up well the Christian's call to live a life of other-centredness, seeking the Master's will in our work, shining like stars in a world darkened by sin. Let's pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and
Where there is sadness, joy.
0 Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.Amen.