Like a lot of youth group kids who grew up in the Blue Mountains, after church on a Sunday night nearly every week we all ended up at Blaxland Maccas. There were no Maccas in the Mountains until I was about fifteen, but as soon as it was built, it was packed with church kids on a Sunday night. There were usually 4 youth groups or more there which was helpful for some cross-pollination. It was like having a combined youth event every week. I think several marriages had their beginnings over a dodgy Big Mac.
One week a mate of mine decided he’d do a bit of a prank on the kitchen staff and test out how well they made Big Macs. So he ordered one and it came out falling apart, lettuce all over the place, and nothing like the picture over the counter. So he sent it back. They made another one, and it was better but still not like the picture. So he put on his best straight face and sent that one back as well. The third time they got it right: it was perfect. We all knew what Dave was doing, and we were all falling about laughing. He’s a Baptist pastor now that bloke.
It must be hard to get food to look right all the time. Those cooking shows on TV—‘Master Chef’ or ‘My Kitchen Rules’—put so much emphasis on presentation. Jamie Oliver is the exception: he just seems to chuck food on a plate and dish it up, and somehow it still looks good. But everyone else presents their food as almost perfect.
A while ago, I was sitting in a chiropractor’s waiting room. I was flicking through a ‘Who’ magazine. There was a story in it about a bloke who was on Master Chef and he was spilling the beans about the show. Turns out that it’s all scripted. The food that’s served to the judges is usually cold because they’ve had to wait ‘til everyone was ready. There are professional chefs around the place to make sure everything is ‘plated-up’ perfectly. These chefs were teaching the contestants step by step how to cook whatever was on for that night, then demonstrating it for the contestants, and then the contestants would have a go, all the while being coached and helped by the professionals. So it nearly always looked like one of those cooking shows where the mess was put aside near the end and the chef would say, ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’, and then would bring out the perfect example of what they were trying to make.
I reckon this is a good way to approach this part of Philippians. The first couple of verses are like the chef explaining to the contestants what they are about to make and giving them their ingredients. We’d call it the ‘theology section’. That’s verses 12-13. God is at work in us while we are at work in him. Then you’ve got the bit where they demonstrate what’s going to happen: that’s the ‘here’s what it looks like in practice’ bit. That’s verses 14-18, which basically says, ‘don’t grumble’. Then lastly you’ve got two examples: the ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ part. That’s verses 19-30, where Paul puts the spotlight on Timothy and Epaphroditus to show us what’s possible as God works in us by his Spirit and we work hard at doing what God says. Let’s kick off with the theology section, verses 12-13:
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 in order to fulfil his good purpose. (NIV)
OK, hands up if you do the right thing when someone is watching? Most of us find that pretty easy. But what if no one is around? What if no one is watching? It’s not so easy then, is it?
You will be shocked to hear that I got into a bit of trouble at school. I wasn’t a bad naughty kid. I was just always up for a laugh. In year ten we went through a phase of joining rubber bands together, folding bits of paper up, and firing them at each other. Our teacher had left the room one day and I was sitting next to an open window and took the opportunity to line up a good shot at a mate who was sitting about five or six metres away. It was a good shot. I got him in the rib cage! Everyone was laughing. But then it all went wrong. Our Senior Master, Mr Craig, had been watching me through the window. I had no idea. I felt this hand grab my shoulder through the window and a stern voice say, “Mr Wakeford! My office, now!” This was back when teachers had some authority. When you were in trouble, you were really in trouble. I got four cuts of the cane for that one.
If people are watching, it’s not too hard to do the right thing. But when you think no one is watching, it’s not so easy. In church, we’re nearly always on our best behaviour, aren’t we? We all get our ‘church face’ on just after we park the car. It’s called ‘The Car Park Miracle’ we looked at the other week in James 3. We walk in and usually manage to hold it all together. When we’re with friends for dinner or something like that, we do our best to behave like a Christian should. But what if we’re just with our family? Or what about when we’re at school or uni or work? How do we speak? What do we do? Do we have a few too many drinks? Do we let our guard down a bit? What do we look at on the computer or the TV when no one is around? What music do we listen to? What do we get up to with a boyfriend or girlfriend? What are the things we do when no one is around that we would never even think about doing if we were with other people? It’s worth thinking about, I reckon. I suspect that for most of us, there are things we do and say at home or work or school or uni or TAFE that we’d never do or say here at church.
Paul starts this section by saying that the Philippians were living like Christians while Paul was with them. But guess what—and this is pretty cool—Paul’s now heard from Epaphroditus that even when Paul is absent, they’re still doing the same thing. Their lifestyle still matches their faith. That’s impressive, and you’ve got to ask how they’ve managed it? The answer is in verses 12 and 13. They are working out their salvation with fear and trembling. That is, they’re figuring out what it means to live as a Christian day by day, knowing that even if there are no people are around, God is. And they know that God is at work in them at the same time that they are making an effort to display true Christian character in their daily lives.
That’s what Paul means when he says at the same time that they are working out their salvation—working out what it means to live like a Christian—God is also at work in them by his Spirit to change their will and their actions—what they think and what they do—so that their thinking and their lifestyle is conformed more and more to God’s good purposes for them.
This is really important for us. We sometimes wonder how on earth we’re meant to put our old ways behind us. We find it difficult from time to time. Our old sinful ways creep back into our thoughts and actions, and we hate it. But this says, ‘Don’t be discouraged! While we’re hard at work trying to make our lives match our faith in Jesus, God is hard at work in us by his Spirit, transforming our thoughts and our actions so we are able to live out our faith.’ God is at work in us day by day to make us more like Jesus. He’s the Master Chef if you like, and with God at work in us, what we dish up can be just about spot on. So what might this look like in practice? Have a look at the next bit from verse 14:
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. (NIV)
One of the issues in the church in Philippi was pride. Pride makes people argue and grumble. So in practice, “working out your salvation” will mean that you get on with life without arguing with each other or grumbling about everything. Imagine what life would be like if we didn’t argue or grumble?
A mate of mine is a Welsh bloke, David Jones. He’s a great preacher. I remember hearing him preach on this ages ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. He said that people end up looking like the thing they do most. People who were joyful looked like joy, smiling and generally in good spirits. People who were content looked like it, peaceful. People who were angry looked it: hard faced and bitter. And people who grumbled just end up looking like a grumble. And it’s true, isn’t it? Think of someone you know who’s always grumbling about something. What do they look like? A grumble. What do you always expect to hear coming out of their mouths? A grumble. Our character traits show up in our faces. So Paul says, ‘Do everything without arguing or grumbling.’ That’s what it looks like to work out your salvation. And as you do that, God is at work in you by his Spirit to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those are the characteristics that should mark our lives as we follow Jesus. Arguing and grumbling are not the fruit of the Spirit!
If we put away arguing and grumbling and instead put on the fruit of the Spirit, we’d be blameless and pure. We’d stand out as being completely different to the world around us, like stars shining in a dark universe. That’s the idea.
So the question is, ‘Who are we when we’re not here? What sort of things do we do? Are we whinging and complaining? Are we gossiping? Do we talk about other people behind their backs? Are we slandering other people when they aren’t around? Do we tear people down? Are we argumentative and divisive? Are we grumbling about this and that? What kind of people are we? Do you complain about everything to your neighbours and friends? Or because we know Jesus and are filled with his Spirit, are we so different that we stand out like stars in the universe compared to the rest of the dark world around us? Or are we lazy? Have we stopped working on our character and behaviour? Are we frustrating the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Do we look like a grumble? Or do we look like joy?
That makes me ask the obvious question: What would it look like if we were getting it right? And Paul’s answered that by pointing us to Timothy and Epaphroditus. This is like the chef on the cooking show pulling out the perfectly plated up dish and saying, ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier!’ Have a look at verses 19-24. Here’s Timothy:
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon. (NIV)
And then from verse 25 to verse 30, Epaphroditus:
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour people like him,30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (NIV)
It’s interesting to look at the way Paul speaks about Timothy and Epaphroditus. You can tell Paul wasn’t an Aussie. He’s so genuine and open in his love for these blokes. His praise is heart-felt and warm. He’s not embarrassed to say exactly what he thinks. If Paul was an Aussie he’d still think the same stuff about these two blokes, but he’d never say it. He’d be bagging them out. He’d say Epaphroditus was a bit soft—had the man-flu, tore a heart muscle—that’s why he wanted to go home! He’d say Timothy was good at pretending to work hard for the gospel but really was a bit of a bludger, and that he hoped to send him away quickly because he’d be glad to be rid of him! I’m so glad Paul was not an Aussie!
I don’t know if you’ve spent much time with Americans, but they are much better at praising each other with real affection than we are. So I think the way Paul speaks here is instructive for us. There’s some room for growth here in the way we speak to each other. We also saw this the other week in James 3 about ‘taming the tongue’. So let’s not be a bunch of people who bag each other out when we really appreciate each other. I think MBM has a reputation as a church that really seeks to honour those who work hard for the Lord. So let’s keep doing that more and more – it’s such a great thing to do!
But here’s the thing: how Paul speaks is just as important as what he says. If we want to know what it looks like to continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling while God is hard at work in you by his Spirit, if you want to know what doing everything without arguing or grumbling looks like, if you want to know what shining like bright stars in a dark world looks like, Paul says: look at these two blokes.
They genuinely put other people before themselves. They work hard with all their energy. They suffer and don’t whinge. They aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, showing genuine concern for other people’s welfare. They carry on their work despite illness. They can’t wait to get back in the fight 100% once they are healthy again. They worry that others worry about them! They are Paul’s brothers, co-workers, fellow-soldiers. The bottom line is that we should honour people who have this character, because this is what it looks like to work out your salvation; this is what it looks like to put off arguing and grumbling and instead put on the fruit of the Spirit.
So I reckon the way we can pull this off is by looking at the example Paul gives us of Timothy and Epaphroditus, and have a go at imitating them. Timothy’s key characteristic is described in verses 21-22.
For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (NIV)
Timothy looks out not for his own interests but for those of Jesus Christ. This was obviously a big thing for Timothy. Paul says that he’d proved himself in this regard as he served with Paul in the work of the Gospel. Timothy had put Jesus first in everything.
And what is Epaphroditus’ defining characteristic? There’s a lot of great things about him, but it’s his selflessness that hits me. Have a look at verses 26-27:
26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. (NIV)
So Epaphroditus was a member of the church in Philippi. He’d been sent to Paul with a gift of money so Paul would be able to provide for his rent and food. But either on the way to Paul in Rome or while he was there, Epaphroditus got really sick, so sick that he almost died. Notice that Epaphroditus was distressed not because he was sick but because his friends back in Philippi heard he was sick, and they were worried!
This is amazing selflessness, but what a great example of the whole ‘It’s not about me!’ thing that we need to hear. Our culture has become incredibly individualistic, and that’s not a biblical or Christian thing. It’s a 21st century Western thing, and it’s the exact opposite of biblical Christianity. Nearly all the advertising we are bombarded with tells us that we are entitled; we have a right to do what we want to do when we want to do it; that it’s all about my instant satisfaction and my happiness, because hey, it’s all about me!
This stuff seeps into our hearts, and because it’s in our hearts, it’s crept into the church and into 21st century Western Christianity in general, and we have to fight it. It isn’t all about us. I am not the centre of the universe and neither are you. Our rights and our entitlements must take a back seat so that we can put Jesus first, because it’s all about him, not all about us.
Epaphroditus gets it. He knows it’s not all about him. He doesn’t want his friends to worry. He wants them to press on doing what they can to spread the gospel in Philippi. And if they’re spending too much time worrying about him, that’s going to take their focus off serving Jesus. That is a massively counter-cultural thing for us to hear. But we need to hear it. And notice what Paul says about Epaphroditus: ‘Honour people like him.’
You know as a church, we can make all the plans we like. We can put more staff on and expand the programmes we already have going. We can increase the number of people who are serving in different ministries. We can make any change we like. But I tell you what: if we just look out for our own interests, if we’re selfish, if we think it’s all about us not all about Jesus, we will get precisely nowhere.
With us and by ourselves, this is impossible. But this part of Philippians tells us that we are not alone. God is at work in us, changing our minds and transforming our actions. His Spirit is doing his work in us day by day so we look more like Jesus, so we’re marked not by arguing or grumbling, but by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. That’s how we shine out like stars, and that’s partly how we change the world.