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Living as Lights in the World – Philippians 2:12-18

Living as lights, shining like stars, Philippians 2, fear and trembling

Philippians Bible Study, Week 10

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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Do everything without complaining or arguing, 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 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. 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. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:12-18 (NIV)

Things to think about

Do your inner attitudes match your outward actions and vice-versa?
Do you have different standards of behaviour when you are with different people?
Is your faith in Jesus the driving force in your life?
What is God’s ultimate purpose for you? What is God’s ultimate purpose for the church?
Do your attitudes and words promote unity or dissension in your church community?
Is your church community an example of an orderly, harmonious society?
Is your light shining? Do you feel intimidated by non-believers?

Therefore . . .

From verse 1:27 to verse 2:11 Paul had been encouraging the Philippians to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel. He had been teaching about unity, harmony and humility. And he had highlighted Christ’s example of perfect obedience and self-sacrifice. With all this in mind, therefore, Paul urges the Philippians to obediently put this teaching into practice. From verse 2:12, Paul explains to the Philippian church how to apply what he had been teaching them.


Following on from Jesus’ example of obedience, Paul commends the Philippians for their obedience, which was a genuine and sincere obedience. Verse 12 is all about integrity. Integrity has become a buzzword in recent times and has particular importance for the church, as one criticism of the church that we still hear too often is that “the church is full of hypocrites”. In societies where church life has been interwoven with civil life, hypocrisy has been a problem. In these societies, if people want to be accepted by their society they need to belong to their local church, regardless of whether they have sincerely put their faith in Jesus Christ.

The Philippians, however, had integrity and Paul commends them for it. What they have done in Paul’s presence they continued to do in his absence (cf. Phil. 1:27).  We need to have a faith that is more than just an outward show of Christian values which we display in the presence of certain people. A genuine faith in Jesus Christ should be the driving force in our life, a force that shapes our inner attitudes as well as our outward behaviour.

Work out your Salvation

This phrase “work out your salvation” in verse 12 has caused some concern and confusion. Paul persistently taught that salvation is through faith and grace alone, and is in no way dependent on performing deeds or rituals associated with the Jewish laws; but here he tells the Philippians to work out, or work at, their salvation.[1] I have personally had a couple of people from the Jehovah’s Witness sect point out this scripture to me. They use this verse to back their claim that salvation is not a free gift from God, but that you need to work for it somehow. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (and others) have failed to look at the context of verse 12; they have failed to look at very next verse.

Just who is doing the work in verse 13? God is the one working within every believer and working within the church. I love the Greek word for “work” used in verse 13 (and in 3:21!) It is a strengthened form of the word for “work”; it is the word we get “energy” from. God is the one who is energetically at work within each believer and within the church, actively transforming us, individually and corporately, according to his will, according to his purpose. And what is his purpose?

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28-30 (NIV, underline added.)

. . . so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4: 12b-13 (NIV)

God’s purpose is that we be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). Paul was not content to just tell people about Jesus Christ, the ultimate aim of his labours was that people would come to Spiritual maturity and perfection—that Christ would be formed within each believer (Gal. 4:19). Paul wanted the whole church to be filled with spiritually mature men and women who were “attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature” (Eph. 4:13).

God is the one who is working in us, but we do need to respond obediently to the promptings of his Spirit and cooperate with God’s work if we want to bring God’s gift of salvation into full effect and attain the spiritual maturity that is God’s will. Paul wanted the Philippian church to work together and cooperate with God’s work to produce a mature, united community of believers. Individual and corporate spiritual maturity is the product of “working out” our salvation.

With Fear and Trembling

The NET Bible translates this phrase in verse 12 as “continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence.”[2] One of the most lamentable characteristics of modern Christianity is the lack of awe, reverence and wonder that God’s transcendent and truly awesome nature warrants. The Bible has several examples of people who met with God and were terrified by his brilliance and power. Yet many modern Christians treat God with flippant familiarity.

While it is impossible, at this present time, to have a truly accurate understanding and appreciation of our holy, majestic God, we need to be wary about being too casual and complacent in our relationship and conversation with him. We should also be wary about having a shallow, superficial view of salvation.

Yes, God is our closest friend who abides with us in a close spiritual union, who personally and lovingly guides us, and who graciously and generously assists us. But God is much more than that. Our God is also gloriously powerful, transcendent, holy.

The Creator of the universe is at work within us, using his tremendous power and benevolence to recreate us in the image of Christ. Our part is to cooperate with God in his transforming work and to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1). You cannot have holiness without reverence.

In Philippians 3:21, Paul reveals the future fulfilment of our salvation—the outcome of God’s continuing, transforming work within us.

. . . the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of his glory by the exertion of the power that he has even to subject all things unto himself! Philippians 3:21

How do you feel knowing that God is powerfully at work within you, working towards a wondrous, glorious goal? Does this knowledge elicit feelings of reverential fear and wondrous trembling in you?[3]

Grumbling and Complaining

Paul continues his letter with some practical advice: “Do all things without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14). There is something awry about a Christian who always seems to have a pessimistic outlook on life, or a contentious, restless demeanour. Paul doesn’t want the Philippian Christians to be whiners and complainers; he wants them to be joyful. By refraining from grumbling, complaining, and dissension, the Philippians would prove themselves to be blameless (or without rebuke) and innocent (or harmless), in contrast with the surrounding pagan society.

Back in Moses’ time, the Israelites had been guilty of murmuring and complaining. Not only had they grumbled and complained about Moses, they also grumbled and complained about God. God took these sins very seriously (Exod. 16:7ff; Num. 11:1ff). While we need to honestly face problems and difficulties, and not dismiss them with blind optimism, we need to be wary about becoming pessimistic complainers, whiny gossips, or promoters of dissension.

Paul was not exaggerating when he described Philippian society as crooked and depraved. We often lament at the falling moral standards of western society, but we have a way to go before it compares with the morality of the Roman Empire including first-century Philippi.

Shining like Stars

Rather than feeling intimidated by the pagans, and cowering and hiding from their society, Paul wanted the Philippians to shine like stars. The phrase “shining as stars in the universe (Greek:-kosmos)” (NIV) is more accurately translated as “appearing as luminaries in the world (Greek-kosmos).” Either way, Paul wanted the testimony and behaviour of the Philippians to shine brightly and manifestly to those around them.

For most 21st-century people, stars are merely beautiful objects in the night sky; but for people in the first century, stars were not only beautiful, they also were seen as part of a divinely created, harmonious order. One of the primary meanings of kosmos is “orderliness.”[4] Paul wanted the church community to be a shining example of a beautifully ordered, harmonious society.

Stars were also indispensable in navigation. The movements and patterns of the stars showed direction, and travellers studied and watched them carefully on their journeys. By holding forth, or holding fast to Jesus Christ, who is called the Word of Life, the Christians at Philippi could illuminate the path to Christ and lead people to Christ.

Paul wanted the Philippians were to be luminaries (light-bearers) in the world (rather than universe) and thus be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:14-16 is very similar.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)

Joy in the Face of Death

Using imagery from altar sacrifices, Paul describes the real possibility that his life and ministry were coming to an end through the sacrifice of martyrdom. With his death in mind, he encouraged the Philippians to be bold and joyful, and continue his ministry of the Gospel.

Since his conversion to Christianity, Paul had invested his life in the cause of the Gospel. He wanted his ministry to have an eternal, lasting effect. Paul’s earnest hope was not that he would be acquitted of his death sentence. His real hope was that his ministry and labour would not prove to be in vain—empty and meaningless.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul used similar imagery of ritual sacrifice to describe his impending martyrdom. However, in his letter to Timothy, Paul expressed more optimism about the success of his ministry.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)

In Philippians 17b-18, Paul picks up the theme of joy again and urges mutual rejoicing even in the face of death.


[1] It is important to note that the “your” in “your salvation” is plural. Paul was addressing the entire church. Paul may have been writing about their collective deliverance, or the sanctification of the entire Philippian church. In collectivist societies, such as that of the first-century Greco-Roman world, salvation was viewed more as a community experience, with less emphasis on an individual, private experience that we see in much of the modern western world.

[2] The expression “fear and trembling” occurs four times in the New Testament, each time in one of Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Phil. 2:12).

[3] The Greek word for “work out” katergazomai means: “to work out, to effect, produce, bring out as a result” (Perschbacher 1990:231) Kent (1978:128) writes: “ . . . working out salvation does not mean “working for” salvation, but making salvation operational [and productive.] Justification must be followed by the experiential aspects of sanctification, by which the new life in Christ is consciously appropriated and demonstrated.”

[4] Kosmos can mean “(1) that which serves to beautify through decoration, adornment, adorning . . . ; (2) condition of orderliness, orderly arrangement, order . . . ; (3) the sum total of everything here and now, the world, the (orderly) universe . . .; (4) the sum total of all beings above the level of the animals, the world . . . ; (5) planet earth as a place of inhabitation, the world . . . (6) humanity in general, the world . . . ; (7) the system of human experience in its many aspects, the world . . . ; (8) collective aspect of an entity, totality, sum total . . . . (BDAG p. 562)

© 29th of July 2010, Margaret Mowczko

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Star-forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Image taken using the Hubble Space Telescope. (Wikimedia)

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8 thoughts on “Living as Lights in the World – Philippians 2:12-18

  1. Thank you sister I read your Bible study on Philippians every day morning as part of my meditation. God bless you.

    1. Thank you so much. This is so edifying indeed. God bless you richly.

  2. Thank You Sis. It helps me a lot to understand what Paul really means in Philippians. I’m pastor Armando Padilla of CITY OF PRAISE FOR ASIA CHURCH Philippines.

    1. Hello brother Armando, I’m so glad this article was useful to you.
      (I removed your email address from your comment so you don’t receive nuisance emails from strangers, but I can still see it.)

  3. Thank God for you

  4. Very helpful.

  5. Thank you for letting the Holy Spirit lead you in sharing His revelation. I am appreciative. May the good Lord continue to richly bless you and yours.

  6. Wow Thank you
    God bless you.

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