I want us to camp on Philippians 2:12-13 for a little while. Paul gives these Philippian believers instructions to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling”. If you’ve been around any good Bible teaching for very long, you know that this doesn’t mean that we work for our salvation. That wouldn’t line up with the rest of Scripture. Scripture teaches that salvation is a free gift and that all we have to do is receive it through our belief in the resurrection and by our confession of Jesus as Lord. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” This leaves no room for a works-based salvation.
There’s two concepts here – a “working in” and a “working out”. If you like to mark words in your Bible, circle or underline the word “work” in verse 12 and then do the same for the other two references to “work” in verse 13. This gets a little deep for a minute but hang with me. In verse 12, the Greek word for “work” is “katergazomai” (cot-air-gaaaz-oh-my). It means “to put something into effect entirely or thoroughly. In other words, it means to establish or accomplish or complete. Paul’s instructions to these believers is that they should complete their salvation, not as if God had left it incomplete, but as a way of living up to all that God had established through their salvation. They should “work it out” because of the work that God had done in them. This confirms other Scriptures such as the ones we studied in James 2:17 that says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The faith is the work that God has done in you and the works are the work that God is doing through you. We continue to allow God to work through us because of the work he has done in us.
The next reference to “work” is in verse 13 when Paul says “for it is God who works in you”. While this is exactly what we just discussed in verse 12, the word here for “work” is a completely different word. This word in the Greek is “energeo” (in-er-gay-oh). This word means “to cause to function or to carry into effect.” It’s an action word that means pretty much what our English word for “work” means. The other word was an establishment type of work; this word is an active functioning work. God is actively working in you. Have you ever felt like God must’ve given up on you? That He must’ve just left you alone? Take heart. The Bible says that God IS working in you. But there’s more.
The last reference to work in verse 13 says, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This type of work is the same as the one we just discussed, “energeo” (in-er-gay-oh). The work that God is doing in you is the same work that he will do through you for his good pleasure. Did you catch that? You are not the one working here. God established it, God works in you and God works through you. And it builds just like that!
Here’s the problem though – sometimes we get in a bit of a hurry, just like Sarah did when she was waiting on the son that God promised her. She took things into her own hands and allowed Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar. Old Sarah was hard at work. She was busy orchestrating everything just so, in hopes that she could fulfill God’s promise to her. The problem of course is that God wanted to be the one to work. There were all kinds of consequences of Sarah taking things into her own hands and working so hard, consequences that we still suffer today through the descendants of the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. The lesson in the Old Testament agrees with the lesson in the New Testament and it we read it with God in mind, not us in mind, we learn this: God wants to work in us. God wants to work through us.
All this talk about work, but there’s one little word in this verse that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Verse 13 says, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Time to look up one more word! God works in us, both to will and to work. This word, “will” is an active, present tense verb. The word in the Greek is “thelo” (the-low). It’s an action word. It means to desire or want strongly. God works in us not just so that he can work through us. This verse says it’s both to desire and to work. He wants His desires to become our desires and that’s why he works in us.
Have you ever been totally, brutally honest with yourself in regard to sin and obedience? There are some sins that we just don’t want to let go of, if we’re totally honest. And there are some commands we just don’t want to obey either. Maybe it’s your favorite TV show that you know doesn’t glorify God, or maybe it’s the comfort you feel when you’re cozied up with your best friend sharing all the gossip, or maybe it’s even some addiction to alcohol or drugs or pornography or food that you’re unwilling to let go of. Or when it comes to commands of God, maybe it’s that you can say “amen” all day when the pastor preaches or the teacher teaches, but you don’t really want to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That part of Scripture must be for someone else because you’ve got a nice home and a nice life here. Or maybe it’s a command like honoring the Sabbath and you’re just too busy to obey that. Or maybe it’s the instructions to tithe and give cheerfully but you just don’t think you have enough to make the ends meet if you do that. Goodness, we’re all a mess.
When you’re brutally honest with yourself you realize that your desires don’t always line up with God’s desires. Never fear, He’s got a plan for that. Verse 13 tells us that he wants to establish his desires in you – “to will and to work” for his good pleasure. He wants you to want what he wants and he will work in you to accomplish that! Be honest with Him and tell Him when your desire doesn’t match with His. He will work in you to change your heart. Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Don’t read that verse as if God is your genie in a bottle, ready to grant your every wish. In the same way that Philippians tell us that God will give us new desires, so Psalms tells us that it is God that gives us our desires in our heart when we delight in Him.
Well that’s just two verses of our study today! We’ll just zip through the rest. Read Philippians 2:14-18. Make note of how Paul loved these people – he wants what’s best for them and he devoted his life to make that happen. He knew grumbling and complaining would tear their church apart, and he knew their obedience would glorify God.
He considered himself a “drink offering”, which of course is a reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system in which an offering would be placed on the altar and then a liquid “drink offering” would be poured all over it. Paul knew that he was not the main offering. The work that the Philippians were doing in Philippi was the offering to the Lord. Paul considered himself as the drink offering, poured out on top as an offering pleasing to God. What a beautiful picture of the Church.
Paul closes this section with verses 19-30, which again show his love for the Philippian church. He has wonderful helpers in ministry, Timothy and Epaphroditus, who he honors as servants of the Lord, men who have lived out all the things that he has just described. I love these personal notes that are slipped into Paul’s letters because they make the writing so much more real. We see that these are not just made up stories with lofty teachings that no one could ever live out. It’s just the opposite – these are real people doing real things, living real life, facing real problems. If they can do it, we can too.