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Work Out Your Salvation (Phil 2:12-18)

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Who are you? What’s your story? Who are we? What’s our story? These are critical questions and how we answer them has a direct bearing on how we walk out our lives.

Over and over and over again in the Old Testament someone is telling the story of Israel. And more often than not that story takes its shape from the Exodus. Moses, Egyptian Slavery, the Ten Plagues, and the Rescue of God; the Red Sea crossing, the Wilderness Wandering, and the Entrance into the Promised Land. The complete story we can read, of course, in the book of Exodus. But Scripture also supplies us with abbreviated versions – little summaries, snapshots of the grand story summed up in just a few words. Psalm 114 is one of these little vignettes.

My dad will be eighty-five this year and he’s telling me stories. Every Monday I go out and spend time with Dad and listen to the old stories of my family. They tell me something about myself. Dad has written them down; we read them together and I ask him questions. I often wish my children and grandchildren could hear my dad tell some of these old stories. And so, when I get the chance, I tell them myself.

Imagine an ancient Israelite context. There are no televisions, no photo albums, no home movies. The extended family has gathered, and the old, old stories are being told. Stories that remind and teach; stories that entertain and bring laughter from the children; sad stories and stories full of joy and celebration; stories that take your breath away; stories that remind everyone present just who they are. And somebody, perhaps a little child, says to Grandpa,


“Tell us the story of the Exodus!”


“You want the long story or the short one?” he asks.

“The short one.”

And Grandpa slowly rises to his feet; mothers hush their children; everyone gathers close. Grandpa clears his throat and with eight verses of poetry sums up a story that takes up a whole book in our bibles.

Psalm 114 (NIV84)

1 When Israel came out of Egypt,

the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,

2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,

Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled,

the Jordan turned back;

4 the mountains skipped like rams,

the hills like lambs.

5 Why was it, O sea, that you fled,

O Jordan, that you turned back,

6 you mountains, that you skipped like rams,

you hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,

at the presence of the God of Jacob,

8 who turned the rock into a pool,

the hard rock into springs of water.

A Psalm to sing, a poem to rehearse, a handful of words that capture the heart of the story that defines the nation Israel. And what a story it is! The Red Sea sees Israel coming and flees! The mighty Jordan changes direction! Mountains and hills skipping like a flock of goats! And the provocative question addressed to the Sea and the hills, the mountains and the Jordan, “Why the fleeing, O Sea? Why the turning back, O Jordan? Why the trembling and shaking, Mountains and Hills?” I’ll tell you why! Yahweh is leading his slave people out from under the cruel oppression of the mighty Egyptians and it’s not just Pharaoh who trembles at the prospect, the whole created order is sitting up and paying attention!

You do remember the story, don’t you? Moses and the burning bush, bare feet on holy ground. The voice of God, “I am who I am!” The fearful and faithful Moses standing before the mighty Pharaoh with the word of God on his lips, “Let my people go!” And Pharaohs insolent response? “Who is Yahweh?” Remember that? And so, God signed Pharaoh up for a ten lesson correspondence course to teach him who Yahweh was. Blood and fire and hail and smoke. “Noooo!” says Pharaoh, and ten times God replies with his powerful, “Yeeessss!” And with mighty Egypt in ruins the slave nation goes free. They come to the Red Sea, and it says, “Nooo!” But Yahweh says, “Yes!” and the Sea scurries off with its tail between its legs. And when Israel arrives to receive the Law even Sinai acts like it might run off, quaking and trembling at the presence of the God of Jacob. The Wilderness with her hard rocks says, “Nooo!” and God says to the rocks, “Yeeesss!” and water gushes forth! Celebration in the Wilderness! And as the nation approaches the mighty Jordan, bursting with runoff rushing south toward the Dead Sea, it takes one look, turns back and heads north while Israel crosses into Canaan.

You’re the little child now, the Israelite boy or girl. Grandpa has told the story. The eyes of the aged in the house brighten! Young couples who know the trials of life rise to their feet, and you with the other little one’s cheer. For this is who you are! This is your story! This is your past and this is your future. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord!

All that from 8 verses, a Psalm somebody wrote a thousand years before Christ? Yes! At the heart of the worship of ancient Israel was the songs that they sang in the face of all the forces that continued to say No to God’s Yes.


he gives them a hymn to sing when they assemble


And when Paul wrote to the huddled and hurting little flock of Christ followers in Philippi, a handful of nobodies in a world of somebodies, right in the center of his letter he gives them a hymn to sing when they assemble, a story for the aged to tell the little ones as they gather, helping them to remember who they are. And is this song, in some way, inferior to the one we sing in Psalm 114? Are you kidding me? The Exodus story in all its glory is merely hinting at the glory of the Christ story! In that story Pharaoh is the enemy, strutting about as the oppressor of the nation Israel. In this story all the forces of wickedness are on trial and the whole human family is in slavery. Here the Satan is saying, “Noooo!” and Jesus is saying, “Yeesss!” And if you think that it was a grand scene when the Red Sea scurried off, when the mountains and hills trembled and the Jordan turned back, the Christ story has the whole of the cosmos gasping and panting. Evil is on trial in the Christ story! Not just Pharaoh’s evil but all evil! Not just evil out there but evil in here! Every square inch of ground that Satan has stolen our Jesus takes back and sends him packing. All the forces of wickedness pour out all their hatred upon our Jesus and he takes it upon himself and destroys it. Death itself is defeated! Every knee bows! Every tongue confesses! This is our story! It’s Exodus times 10! What an astounding thing it would have been to witness the glory of God descending upon Sinai! But that doesn’t begin to compare to the entrance of Jesus Christ into the world. The picture of God on display in the mighty miracles of the Exodus was only a view through the fog in comparison to the glory revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:6-11 (My Translation)

6He, existing in the form of God,

didn’t think to cling to equality with God.

7But instead emptied himself;

taking the form of a slave,

becoming in the likeness of man.

And being found in appearance as a man,

8he humbled himself,

becoming obedient

to the point of death,

even death on a cross.

9For this reason God highly exalted him

and freely gave him the NAME[1],

the name above every name.

10So that at the name of Jesus

every knee will bow

– in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth –

11and every tongue will confess,

“LORD[2] Jesus Christ!”

to the glory of God the Father.


This is the legacy of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Brothers and sisters, as the Egyptian Exodus defined Israel, this Exodus defines us! This is our story! This is the song we are called to sing! This is what we whisper to each other when darkness closes in. This is what we shout in the face of evil. God, who in Jesus takes on human flesh, humbles himself, empties himself and enters the intersection where evil dwells and conquerors it through the cross! Resurrection, victory and exaltation through the cross. Love conquering fear! Love conquering death itself. This is the legacy of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in light of this story, we not only stand in awe of the cross but we rush to embrace it in our own lives.

Brothers and sisters, we are a part of the grand story that began with Jesus Christ. It captured Paul’s heart and sent him across the pagan world with gospel on his lips. In community after community, city after town after village the apostle Paul not only proclaimed the cross, he carried it, he embraced it, and he couldn’t stop singing about it!


When Israel found herself... stationed at the foot of Sinai

there was a choice to be made.


When Israel found herself free; out from the land of Egypt, through the Red Sea and stationed at the foot of Sinai there was a choice to be made. How would Israel respond to her astounding salvation? How would she now live, in light of this glorious redemption? How would the Israelite people work it out – put it on the ground – in their lives? Israel had one task: to embrace her salvation, to translate their redemption into their day to day lives, to live out their lives in light of their glorious Exodus. The mountain trembled and quaked, they heard the sound of the long trumpet blast, the nation was full of fear and trembling and now was the hour for them to make the declaration, “Yes, this will define us. Yes, we will honor our salvation. Yes, we will struggle, working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

This is the point we are at in the letter to the Philippians. Paul has quoted the Hymn, the glorious Christ Hymn. He has rehearsed our Exodus, and now while we’re still wide eyed and awe struck – while the smoke and the glory is still heavy in the air – Paul urges us forward to embrace our salvation. Listen as he does for the echoes of the Exodus.

Philippians 2:12–18 (NIV84)

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17 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. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.


Any talk of ‘work’ in relation to salvation

sends us running from the text, horrified at the thought.


Verse 12 sometimes gives people anxiety. Any talk of ‘work’ in relation to salvation sends us running from the text, horrified at the thought. But that reaction to this text is not helpful. This text is not about saving yourself! I hope the Exodus analogy has made that abundantly clear to you. This text is about responding to the salvation we have been so gloriously given. Israel didn’t earn anything in their Exodus and neither did we in ours. This does not mean, however, that we have a passive role to play! Our task is to respond appropriately to our salvation. And this requires work, it requires our full and heartfelt participation. God has redeemed and rescued us in and through Jesus; our task now, as we stand in awe of his glory, is to utterly give our lives to him. And unless you just fell off the turnip truck you know that this requires all of your attention, all of your focus, and all of your determination. Paul calls that “work” here.


How do we facilitate the work of God in our lives?


But in case you’re still uneasy with this language read on. Verse 13 makes it very clear that this work we do is not ours alone. The work we do, the work we must do with fear and trembling, is a participation in the work that God is doing in our lives. He has rescued and redeemed us. He has saved us and is at work in transforming us into the people he has called us to be. The question is, “How do we facilitate the work of God in our lives? How do we embrace it?” We do just what Paul tells us to do. We obey, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We say, “Yes,” to his work of salvation in our lives.

We don’t do like Israel did (verse 14). We don’t respond to God’s salvation by grumbling and arguing. This would be to scorn our salvation, to refuse to cooperate with God’s work in our lives. And more to the point, here in this text, by grumbling and complaining we would be determining not to embrace our story – the cross shaped story of our salvation, failing to be who we are called to be: bearers of the “word of life” – the gospel message – into a dark world.

This business of how we treat one another is absolutely pivotal in this whole section. The reason Paul introduced the Christ Hymn to us in the first place was to urge us to be Christ like to one another. That’s what the first four verses of the chapter are all about. When the church is under pressure the temptation is to fracture, to turn in on each other, to bicker and fight, to focus on all the wrong things and in so doing to destroy the witness of Christ.

Verse 16 is Paul’s great commission text, “Holding out the word of life!” How do we hold out the word of life Paul? We work out our salvation; we, in other words, embrace the cross of Jesus as our story. We come before the cross with fear and trembling our hearts intent on obedience; we participate in God’s work in our lives. We do all of this so that we don’t end up like Israel in the Wilderness, destroying the work of God by our incessant grumbling and complaining. Instead, we become, by our participation with God’s work in our lives, blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation. That’s how we shine!!

And Paul’s not done yet. He wants the Philippians to shine so that he will have something to boast about on the day of Christ. In other words, he’s saying, “Keep at it!! Work hard! I can’t wait to brag about you on the day of Christ!!” He’s urging them on to the hard work of participating in God’s call in their lives.


Paul has spent his life since his encounter with the risen Christ

– since his salvation –

working it out with fear and trembling.


And he’s still not done. Have a look at verse 17. He’s said that he’s been running and toiling for them. He doesn’t want it to have all been for nothing! But do you think he’s finished serving them in the name of Christ. Do you think a little trial or two in Paul’s life is going to derail him in his service to the Philippians? May it never be!! “Even if I am poured out like a drink offering…” What is Paul saying? What is he doing? Paul has been at the business of working out his salvation, that’s what he’s been doing! He has spent his life since his encounter with the risen Christ – since his salvation – working it out with fear and trembling. He has been seeking to embrace the cross of Christ in every facet of his life. And what it looks like right here in Phil 2:17 is Paul’s willingness to empty himself, utterly empty himself for the Philippians. Paul is living out the Christ Hymn in his own life.

And if you think that this didn’t take some work on Paul’s part, you’re crazy! If you think that Paul got where he was in his embracing of the cross of Jesus by a commitment to being passive about it, you couldn’t be further from the truth! Paul, day after day, sought to utterly give himself in obedience to the way of the cross. Paul knew this business of “working out his salvation with fear and trembling.”

And he didn’t do all of that hard work because someone persuaded him that his salvation was hanging by a thread and so he had to work really hard to secure it! No!!! He worked really hard because he knew that he was redeemed by Jesus and therefore all that he had belonged to him! Paul joyously laid it all down and the more his life looked like laying it all down the more joyous he was!

Remember the Psalm we began with? Remember how it ends? “… the hard rock into springs of water.” That’s a contradiction in terms. So is rejoicing in suffering. Paul lived that contradiction because he embraced the cross and he urges us to live there too.

“I’m glad to lay down my life for you! I’m rejoicing with you all! Now you get on with it yourselves. Join in this glorious celebration of the cross! Empty yourself for him! Work at it! It will require all your effort and strength. Go and stand at the mountain of the cross and tremble in awe. Refuse, absolutely refuse to say, “No,” to God. Everything he asks you to do, do it. Every prompting of the Holy Spirit, every slight nudge, pay attention and respond! Obey! Not just when your preacher is in your face about it; but obey especially when he’s nowhere in sight!

Brothers and sisters, Christ has called us to be the light of the world, filled with his presence. We must utterly give ourselves to this task. It starts today, it starts now. What will you say Yes to today? What will you say No to today?

Let us be one – one holy people for the sake of his glory.

[1] This has been capitalized in order to draw our eye to the fact that this text is pointing to KURIOS in verse 11.

[2] Kurios is the word translated frequently as Lord in the NT. It is also the word that translates YHWH in the Greek OT. Paul is telling us that Jesus has a been given God’s name – Yahweh. He is interacting with Isaiah 45:23-24.

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