The Exercise of Humility (Philippians 2:12-18)

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Recently, one of my daughters lovingly patted my stomach and said, “Dad, I think you need to start running again.” Exercise—for most of us, I am sure—is not a word that we particularly like. More specifically, most reading this probably don’t actually enjoy exercising. It is one of those things that we need, but we just don’t like. One television advertisement for Coca Cola Light jokes that we should congratulate the man who pays his gym fees and actually goes to gym! I am sure we can all appreciate that sentiment.

But let’s be honest: spiritual exercise can be just as daunting a thought as physical exercise. Yet spiritual exercise is clearly a command in Scripture. Paul wrote that we are to “exercise thyself … unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). He further spoke of the Christian life as a race that is run (2 Timothy 4:7), and added in similar athletic jargon that we are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). He told us to bring our bodies under subjection (1 Corinthians 9:27). Clearly, the New Testament is filled with exhortations to spiritual exercise.

Though the Christian walk is tiring, we should be encouraged that God Himself works in us to exercise ourselves spiritually; and not only that, but to complete spiritual exercise. He gives us the necessary energy. This is the message of Philippians 2:12-18, the passage under scrutiny in this study.

In our study of this chapter thus far, we have considered Paul’s exhortation to humility (vv. 1-4) and the example of humility in the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 5-11). Now, in vv. 12-18, Paul lays an expectation upon his readers to exercise the humility of Christ. In this study, we will learn what is involved in the biblical exercise of humility. The goal of our spiritual exercise is to lose some unnecessary weight; that is, the weight of pride and its debilitating effects of conflict and division. Positively stated, our goal is to put on humility in such a way that we will experience unity in glorifying God in Christ. Let us consider five major principles from this passage concerning the exercise of humility.

The Exercise of Humility is Expected

First, Paul tells us that we are expected to exercise humility: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (vv. 12-13).

The word “wherefore” (or “therefore”) connects what is about to be said to the preceding context. The NASB translates the word as “so then.” In other words, “In light of the example of humility, the following is expected.”

Paul significantly addresses his readers as “my beloved.” There is an important principle here: When you consider the astounding humility of Christ as described in vv. 5-11, how else can you view your brothers and sisters in Christ? In other words, as you see something of Christ’s great humility and love, it will drive you to a greater and more humble love for the brethren. It is not always easy to love fellow believers, but it becomes far easier when we consider the Person and Work of Christ.

Paul moves straight to his exhortation: “As ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I must admit that, until I studied this text in detail, I always saw this particular verse as an exhortation to Doug Van Meter. That is, it seemed that Paul was moving from a corporate context to an individual context: “Individual believer, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But that is not at all what the apostle is saying.

Paul speaks here of his desire for obedience “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.” He had spoken in similar terms in 1:27, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” In this context, he is clearly speaking of his desire for the church to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” Now, in v. 12, he speaks in similar terms, and he is speaking to the same audience: the church as a whole. In fact, the word “ye” in v. 12 is plural, and thus it is obvious that Paul’s charge is not to the individual Christian, but to the church as a whole.

Paul expected the church corporately to work out its own salvation with fear and trembling, whether he was present or not. He had laid the foundation for this in vv. 5-11, for if they would consider the fact that Christ is Lord, Paul’s presence would make no difference to them. They were expected to obey in the sight of Christ, not in the sight of an apostle. As Charles Erdman has said, “None are so worthy of praise as those whose obedience to the will of God is quite independent of the knowledge and admiration of men.” The principle is clear: Humility is always expected—even when no one is looking! It does little good to put on a show of humility publicly if you are arrogant in private.

The apostle exhorts the church, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” What precisely does this mean? Obviously, when seeking to determine the meaning of any passage of Scripture, you must keep in mind the broader context. We must never extract application from Scripture if we are ignoring the wider context, and this text is no different.

In the context, Paul has been speaking of humility. He has exhorted the church to humility in light of the fact that they are followers of Christ, and has pointed them as an example to the humility of Christ. We can assume then, that the working out of salvation—in this particular context—has something to do with humility.

The Scriptures are quite clear that the ultimate goal of conversion is Christlikeness. God does not save us merely to deliver us from hell, though thankfully salvation accomplishes that. God saves us in order to make us like Christ. And since Christ exercised deliberate humility, as described in vv. 5-11, it is expected for us—as we grow in Christlikeness—to exercise similar humility in our lives. In other words, to work out our own salvation is to have the fruit of Christlike humility evidenced in daily life.

I must emphasise again that Paul is not exhorting each church member to do this in isolation. Certainly, the command is for each member to work out his or her own salvation so that humility is evidenced in his or her life. But the goal of this is the health and well-being of the church. As F. F. Bruce has stated it, “Each of them, and all of them together, must pay attention to this.”

The phrase “work out” is a translation of a single Greek word, which means “to work to completion.” Thus, the church was to labour in order that others might see evidence of full salvation in the Body. They were to work to the point where the humility of Christ could be seen in the church at large. The apostle has not shifted gears to sanctification generally speaking; instead, he is speaking specifically to the issue of humility as evidence of Christlikeness.

Paul adds that the working out of humility is to be carried out “with fear and trembling.” This speaks of awe and reverence, of a deep sense of accountability. To cite Sinclair Ferguson, “The Christian should always be conscious that he or she lives before the face of God. There should always be a sense of awe in the life of the believer, a sense of living where we are always visible … seen through and through … and amazingly, always loved by the Holy One.” We are to work out the humility of Christ because He is Lord (vv. 9-11) and He is watching.

My wife recently picked up a saying somewhere, which she repeats when there is strife in the house between family members: “Count Him as never absent.” What she is doing is reminding the contending parties that Christ is watching their behaviour, and that they are thus to behave in a Christlike manner. Paul is saying much the same thing: that we are to work out our salvation because we are always under the watchful eye of the One who has a name above all names, the Lord Jesus Christ.

If we truly appreciate the fact that Jesus Christ is always watching and listening to what we say and how we say it, we will be very careful of what and how we speak to our fellow believers. The goal of the Christian life is to produce holiness in us, but holiness and humility are absolutely inseparable. Humility can be defined as living every moment totally dependent upon God. When we live every moment totally dependent upon God, it will produce holiness individually and in the church corporately.

The church is expected to be a humble people, a people suffused with humility in which self-projection has given way to devotion to the Lord. This will produce holiness in our midst.

There is certainly a great expectation set forth in v. 12, and we might be tempted to think that achieving this goal is impossible. But lest we despair, Paul encourages us in v. 13 that the power for the assignment is available: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” In other words, God gives to us what we need in order to obey His command. In the words of Homer Kent, “Paul depicts God as actively and continually putting forth his energy in believers to insure the accomplishment of their task.” Or to quite J. B. Lightfoot, “Both the impulse and the performance come from God.” The local church can be of the same mind, of one accord, saying the same thing. In the midst of a divided world, the church can be unified, because God gives the power to make this possible. God gives both the desire (“will”) and the ability (“do”) to accomplish this.

Paul tells his readers that God works in the church to desire and to accomplish “his good pleasure.” What precisely is “his good pleasure”? Once again, honouring the overall context, we can safely conclude that God’s good pleasure is a humble people. His “good pleasure” is a people that follow the example of humility, the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s power and energy, says Kent, is “operative, not merely resident.” We can work out our salvation because God is working it in! Humility is our birthright!

Let me suggest that if you have no desire to be of one accord and of one mind with the Body of Christ, you ought to examine whether you are truly in the faith. According to Paul here, God works in the believer—in the context of the local church—in order to desire and to achieve humble unity. That desire is not only for supersaints, but for every believer in Christ. Therefore, if someone professes faith but is quite contentedly swimming upstream against the church, there is obviously some sort of a spiritual problem in that person’s life.

God moves in the midst of all His children to produce Christlike humility. Strife is a reality in any local church, but one evidence of salvation is that you cannot rest if there is tension between you and a fellow church member. If you are a believer, then God is working in you to produce both the desire for and the practice of humility. Therefore, when tension mounts between you and a fellow church member, God works in you to desire reconciliation and then to produce that reconciliation. This means that there will be no rest in the life of a believer when there is tension between him and another believer.

Often, when there is tension between us and another church member, we try to avoid them. It is at such times that God often “forces” our paths to cross, giving us opportunity after opportunity to make humble reconciliation. Perhaps when you are in difficult situations, you are tempted to say, “I don’t need this!” But you do need it, for God is working in you to will and to do of His good pleasure. Let us therefore bring pleasure to our great God by the exercise of humility in the church.

The Exercise of Humility is Essential

Second, it is essential for our eternity, for Christ exaltation and for man’s evangelisation that the church exhibit biblical humility. Paul writes, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life” (v. 14-16).

The expectation of vv. 12-13 is rather general, but now Paul gets down, as they say, to some brass taxes. He speaks in the middle of v. 15 about “a crooked and perverse nation.” Here, he is lifting a picture straight from the Old Testament. In his famed song in Deuteronomy 32, Moses laments concerning the Israelites, “They have corrupted themselves, their spot is not the spot of his children: they are a perverse and crooked generation.” A little later, he adds, “And when the LORD saw it, he abhorred them, because of the provoking of his sons, and of his daughters. And he said, I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith” (vv. 5, 19-20). So, we see that Israel was “a perverse and crooked generation … in whom is no faith.” That is, their perverseness and crookedness were characteristic of unbelief, and they were rejected by God. But notice carefully in the following texts what it was that led to Israel being a crooked and perverse nation:

  • Numbers 11:1-6—“And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched. And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the LORD burnt among them. And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.”
  • Numbers 14:1-4—“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.”
  • Numbers 20:1-2—“Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.”
  • Numbers 21:4-5—“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.”

It is fair to say that Israel—at least that generation that died in the wilderness—was a crooked and perverse generation because of their incessant murmurings and disputings. It is for that reason that Paul writes, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings.” As he writes elsewhere, specifically alluding to that wilderness generation, “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:10).

“Murmurings” speaks of outward grumbling, whilst “disputings” speaks more to the attitude of the heart. But both are evidence of the same thing: To consistently murmur and dispute is, as Lightfoot has said, to intellectually rebel against God. It is to manifest characteristics of unbelief. Jude described “ungodly sinners” as “murmurers” and “complainers” (Jude 15-16). Anyone familiar with the Old Testament who then read Paul’s words in vv. 14-16 would immediately understand the gravity of the situation: If God-wrought humility is not in your life, then you are no child of His! Humility is indeed essential! Notice three things for which humility is essential.

Humility is Essential for Our Eternity

We have already noted that “murmurings and disputings” are uncharacteristic of God’s people. As Ferguson has noted, “A grumbling or questioning spirit is an expression of ingratitude to God’s providence and of lovelessness and pride toward others. It is a working against salvation, a denial of grace.” Thus, if our lives are characterised by murmuring and disputing, we have good cause to question our eternal state.

There was evidently some sort of a problem with murmuring and disputing in the Philippian church. It does not seem to have been a major problem, but a murmuring and disputing attitude was beginning to rear its ugly head, and Paul wanted to deal with it before it became too engrained in the assembly. He wanted them to understand that a continual complaining, critical, divisive spirit was not characteristic of faith in Christ.

Instead of being murmurers and disputers, Paul wanted his readers to be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke.” “Blameless” speaks of being “without criticism,” “above reproach.” “Harmless” speaks of being “unadulterated” or “without contamination.” In contrast to murmuring and disputing, blamelessness and harmlessness are fruit of being “the sons of God.” Believers, who have been amazed by grace, live gratefully, blamelessly and harmlessly; they do not live with a consistent murmuring and disputing attitude.

In sum, we might say that a lack of humility is manifested in a complaining, critical and contentious spirit. It is, in the words of Ferguson, a “complete denial of the Spirit of [God’s] family.” It is essential that we exercise humility, for if God is not working this in us then we are not His eternal children.

Humility is Essential for God’s Exaltation

It was essential that the Philippians be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.” We have already defined “blameless” and “harmless” and have spoken of what it means to be “a crooked and perverse nation.” But now Paul tells us that we, the church of Jesus Christ, “shine as lights in the world.”

The word “lights” is a rare word in the New Testament. In fact, it is only used one other time, where John uses it to describe the light that comes from God Himself (Revelation 21:11). It speaks of luminaries: for example, the sun, moon and stars. Israel was initially chosen to be God’s luminary in this world, but when they became a crooked and perverse nation, God replaced them with the new covenant church (Matthew 21:43). Our assignment as the church is to shine in this world by emanating Christ. As we do so, God will be glorified. As Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before me, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We are to be pure and uncontaminated light, which gives to the world “no obvious flaws to disfigure out witness” (Kent). Someone has paraphrased the verse this way: “In the moral darkness, the children of God should stand out as stars at midnight.” One commentator has stated it poignantly:

The word “lights” is really “luminaries.” It refers, not to any earthly or human means of illumination, but to the stars and other heavenly bodies. As the moon and the planets and the constellations shine forth in brightness against the blackness of the night, so the lives of true Christians lighten the moral darkness of the world. They do so by “holding forth the word of life.” The duty of Christians, therefore, is not merely to form a moral contrast to the godless world, but to bear witness to the Source from whence all true life issues. The gospel which they proclaim is in all reality “the word of life,” for it contains the principle and power of the life which is life indeed, the life which is more abundant, the life which is “hid with Christ in God,” the life which someday will be manifested in all its perfection and glory when Christ appears.

Let us humble ourselves for the glory of God. The world needs to see this in the church.

Humility is Essential for Evangelism

Paul adds that we are to be “holding forth the word of life.” The term “holding forth” literally means “to hold fast to.” It certainly includes the idea of “holding out” the gospel (“the word of life”) to others, but this is not all that it implies. The injunction is really for the church to cling tightly to the gospel in order that its humble message might produce humility in the church. But the natural outflow of us clinging to the gospel will be for us to hold it out to others. “Only as we firmly ‘hold to’ the gospel truth,” writes Ralph Martin, “can we effectively ‘hold it out.’” Simply stated, humility empowers our evangelism.

Humility-empowered evangelism was certainly the pattern of Paul’s ministry. Listen to his testimony regarding his ministry to the Corinthians:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

(1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

It is impossible to cling to the gospel and at the same time to remain selfish. You cannot hold fast to the gospel at simultaneously hold fast to bitterness toward others. You cannot hold both the gospel and a critical spirit at the same time. The gospel cannot be held in one hand and murmuring and disputing in the other. As we cling to the gospel we will necessarily abandon these things and cleave instead to the humility of Christ, which will indeed strengthen our gospel witness in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation. Someone has well said, “The miracle of a holy life is the greatest gospel witness to an unbelieving world.” We might add at this point that the miracle of a humble life is the greatest gospel witness to an unbelieving world, for holiness and humility go hand in hand.

The Exercise of Humility is Exhausting

Third, we learn from this passage that it is an exhausting endeavour to exercise biblical humility. Paul’s desire was “that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain” (v. 16). The word “run” speaks of an athletic contest, whilst the word “laboured” literally means “to work to the point of exhaustion.” The principle is simply that hard work is required in order for a church to exercise humility. It was exhausting work for Paul, and it will most certainly be exhausting work for us. Spiritual maturity, fuelled by humility, is hard work.

It is quite clear from the contents of this letter that Paul’s major assignment at Philippi was to work with the church toward unity based on humility. He had worked to the point of exhaustion to see this brought to pass in the church. And this same hard work is required if we will see humility produced in our churches.

Humility is not something that drops out of the sky. It is not something that is instantly produced by a strike from heaven. As God gives you opportunity to exercise humility, you will find out just what hard work it really is! It is not easy, but it is certainly worth the effort!

The Exercise of Humility is Exhilarating

The book of Philippians is filled with the theme of joy or rejoicing. One of the things that would cause Paul to “rejoice” (v. 16) would be the exercise of humility in the church. It would be exhilarating for him to see humility worked out in their midst.

One of the (biblical) issues with which pastors are often afraid to deal is the issue of pastoral authority. The writer of Hebrews clearly deals with this when he writes, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Paul clearly understood something of this, for he revealed to the Philippians that it would cause him joy if he saw humility worked out in their church. John likewise understood this: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4).

Elsewhere, Paul connected unity in the church to submission to church leadership: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). As a pastor of a local church, I can testify to the fact that there is nothing quite as grieving as to see arrogant disunity in the church. At the same time, there is no greater joy in the shepherding ministry than to see humble unity in the Body. Let me then briefly plead with you to give your leaders cause for rejoicing, and not for heartache.

The Exercise of Humility is Extreme

Consider Paul’s closing words in this section: “Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me” (2:17-18).

These are tough verses to expound, but I explain what I believe the apostle is getting at. Paul speaks of “the sacrifice and service of your faith,” an acknowledgement of their sacrifice in service for Christ. Paul elsewhere exhorted believers, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). The Philippians were obedient to this exhortation: they had offered themselves to God. The word “service” is a word which implies priestly, liturgical service.

But Paul further speaks of his willingness to be “offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith.” The word “offered” here is another priestly word, which was used of the drink offerings in old covenant worship (Numbers 15:1-10). Paul was willing to be poured out as a drink offering if that was what God wanted. From the earlier context of the book, we get the impression that Paul anticipated release from prison, but he was not absolutely certain that this would be forthcoming. He now expresses his contentedness in the will of God even if that deliverance was not forthcoming. And he was willing to do this because it would result in their service to be an even more acceptable sacrifice. Thus, we might paraphrase Paul: “As your life of faith is a loving sacrifice, I’m willing to so humble myself as to lay down my life for your lives to be an even better sacrifice.” As Bruce states it, “The life of the Philippian church is seen as an offering to God. If one more thing is necessary for this to be acceptable, so be it!”

You will appreciate how extreme the exercise of humility might be in this case. If necessary, Paul was willing to lay down his life to ensure that the service of the church—again in the context of humility—was acceptable to God. Simply put, Paul was willing to lay down his life for the spiritual benefit of his readers.

Not everyone reading this will be called to lay down their life for Christ, but as we grow in Christlike humility, we will come to the point where we are willing to do so if necessary. Our humility may never require that extremity, but the pages of church history are littered with such martyrs; men and women who so had the mind of Christ that they did not cling selfishly to their rights.

On a slightly different note, someone has well said that whilst many profess to be willing to lay their lives down for Christ, He is more often than not just looking for us to live for Him. Perhaps you would declare your willingness to lay down your life for Christ, but are you willing to live for Him? You may be willing to lay down your life to make your church a better church, but are you willing to be involved in the ministry of the church? You may be willing to die for a more Christlike church, but are you willing to join the prayer meeting? You may be willing to give your life for a more Christlike church, but are you willing to build, maintain and restore relationships in the Body?

The gospel drives us to the extremities of humility because Jesus Christ exercised the most extreme humility! May we so love Christ and His church that we will be willing to lay down our very lives for the brethren.

The exercise of humility is not an option. It is what God expects of us and it is essential for us. May God continue to grant us the grace to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is Him who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure, which is, of course, Christlike humility.