CHILDREN OF GOD IN A WARPED WORLD
August 27, 2006
Having called for us to respond to who Jesus Christ is by developing within us humble minds, Paul turns next to our responding to who Jesus is by developing the quality of obedience in our everyday lives. Phil. 2:12-18 is one of the great paragraphs in the New Testament. It is one of my favorite ones for several reasons. I appreciate the practical tone of it, but even more than that, I notice that it begins with a “so then” or a “wherefore” or “therefore,” depending on how the term is translated. What that says to us is that this is a response to Christ. What this paragraph calls for is here because of the fact that Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a servant and became obedient to the death of the cross and has been highly exalted, and some day will be recognized by every knee and every tongue. I notice also that this great paragraph talks to us about being children of God, not just a child of God myself individually, but children of God, us together. This is talking to us then about being the church that the Lord intended for us to be. Then I notice here in this passage that there are phrases like “in the midst of” this generation and then “shining as lights in the world.” This is how children of God are to conduct themselves in this world. So we may accurately say that here is a paragraph about how the church must respond to who Jesus is in this world. This is about what the church must do about Jesus in our everyday lives. This is where our faith that we sing about and talk about has to be turned into reality in the business of real living.
Notice what the apostle writes here: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
In The Midst of A Crooked Generation
In thinking through that paragraph, let’s begin for a moment with that phrase “a crooked and twisted generation” there in the middle of verse 15. That little statement has a significance that would have been familiar to people who knew the Old Testament scriptures. It actually comes from “the Song of Moses” at the end of the great book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 32:5). Moses looks back over his experience with the children of Israel as he has been with them for these forty years, coming out of Egypt and then wandering through the wilderness. He has been all too familiar with their habit of rebellion and stubbornness in the face of the God who loved them and was trying to provide for them. He knew of their tendency to murmur about how God had done it or not done it and to complain all the way along. He knew that even though these people had had an opportunity to see God’s power as he dealt with the gods of Egypt through the plagues, God’s victory as he led them across on dry ground and over the chariots of Pharaoh and all of his soldiers, God’s provision in the manna and the water that he had given them in the wilderness, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire to show God’s presence - that in spite of all of that these people, according to Numbers 16:2, were quick to say, “Let’s go back to Egypt. At least they fed us soup down there!” That is the kind of hearts that Moses had dealt with in that “crooked and twisted generation.”
Paul used the term here in this passage to refer to the Roman world in which the readers of this letter had to live. I notice in some of William Barclay’s writings his descriptions about the Roman world of that day. For example, in his book on I Peter, he described that time as a time of futility and of ignorance and of desire. That is not a very attractive way to describe the world in which these people had to live, is it? Ignorance of any will or purpose of God, or direction for their lives, desire to cause them to be at the mercy, as Barclay puts it, “of newer and wilder ways of gratifying their own lust,” and then the futility that that brings. As he put it, “if man is going to die like a dog, why not live like a dog?” In his book on Romans, he describes the situation in this way. He says, “It was a time which was out of control, morally and socially and in every other way.” Tacitus, the Roman historian, is quoted as describing the time this way, “I am entering upon the history of a period rich in disasters, gloomy with wars, writ with seditions, savage in its very hours of peace.” Even in peace, it was savage. Seutonius, another historian of the day, said about the reign of Tiberias, the emperor, “No day passed but someone was executed. It was an age of sheer, utter terror.” I wonder if that might apply to the news of our own time. Then he says, “Not only was it a day which was out of control, but it was a day which was stricken with unparalleled luxury.” Stricken with luxury! The emperor Caligula, the madman, Barclay says “had even sprinkled the floor of the circus arena with fine gold dust instead of sawdust.” It was a time when there was such a great gap between what the people on the lower end of the scale experienced and the people at the top end of the scale experienced that it was almost unimaginable. People were desperate on the one hand, but on the other hand unimaginably expensive banquets were provided for the “in” crowd with the emperors. The emperor Vitellius, for example, set on the table at one banquet 2,000 fish and 7,000 birds. There were said to be banquets of thousands of pounds of peacock brains and nightingales’ tongues being served. Think of the expense and the waste involved in that process. The luxury of the day was such that as this writer describes it, “people were weary of ordinary things but avid for new sensations.” One writer described it as the time of “that bitterness which flows from the very fountain of pleasure.” The greater the infamy, the wilder the delight!
It was also a time of immorality. The empress Agrippina, who was the wife of Claudius, actually at night used to leave the royal palace and go down to brothels to serve there for the sake of unsated lust. A writer said “they show a dauntless spirit in those things they basely dare.” Barclay tells the story of one woman who was married to her 23rd husband, she being his 21st wife. That shows what had happened to family life. When Paul used the term “a crooked and twisted generation,” he knew what he was talking about, and he was using the term accurately!
When we come down to our own time, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to see that those same words would apply truly to us, too. We live in situations where, if you look at the entertainment world or at the social world or at the political world or any other number of arenas, you would find these same characteristics. I am not merely trying to stand here and call the world ugly. When I used the word “warped,” it is an accurately translation I think of what Paul is saying here. But what I mean to say is simply the fact that whenever people of faith have undertaken to live for the Lord, they have had to live in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, whether it was in the days of Moses or in the days of Paul or in your time. If you are going to live for God, you will have to do it in the midst of a generation of people who may not want to live for God, who may not believe in him or in anything he has said, and who may not be willing for their lives to be influenced in any way by who Christ is or by what he has done for us in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
Among Whom You Shine
Notice, though, Paul’s phrase “among whom you shine as lights in the world” (v. 15). That is an interesting concept if you think about it. The church here is not merely meant to say, “The world is crooked and twisted. Let’s get away from it. Let’s hide from it. Let’s not have anything to do with it.” Instead, the church goes forth to conquer it, to make it different, to influence it for the better. That is the challenge.
What Paul is saying here is that you can be a believer, even in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation. You can be a faithful Christian even in a time like this. In Hebrews 11 and the beginning of chapter 12, there is this long list of people of faith who have traveled through the course of this world. When you get to the end of the chapter, there is this great cloud of witnesses. They are not merely watching to see whether we will make it, but their existence is testimony to the fact that it can be done. In the crowd here is an Abraham who has to wait so long for the promise to be fulfilled. There is a Noah who had to live in a world of darkness which God judged, and he still was faithful. There are people like Moses who had to deal with the temptations of all the pleasures of Egypt and still chose the reward of God instead. It can be done, you see. The church can exist in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.
It not only can exist, it actually can flourish. The church at Philippi itself was evidence of this fact. In Philippians 1, verse 3 and following, Paul begins to give thanks for them, for their partnership in the gospel, for their faith and for their love and for their service. They were living in the midst of this crooked and twisted generation, and yet they were being faithful and true to the Lord. Not only can you be a Christian, not only can the church exists, but actually we are much needed in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.
Three or four years ago I was invited to a congregation in Benton, AR to conduct a weekend workshop with them. While I was there, I met a fellow who was the principal of a middle school in the area. This gentleman attended all the sessions, and he commented to me on the last day of the workshop, “What we need in our schools mostly is Christian families.” I thought that was an interesting observation. He cited the Lord’s statement about salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “I don’t know what we would do without the presence and the influence of godly families.” The church is needed in this world. Where else will the world hear a better way, where will it hear of God’s love and his concern, where will it hear of the Lord’s invitation to come to come to him and let him deal with the burdens, where will it hear of hope beyond this, where will it hear standards by which life is meant to be lived, where will it hear about holiness? It is from the church being the church, and that is why the guidance of this passage here is so crucial.
As Lights In The World
How does the church shine like light in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation? As you look down through this paragraph, you can see some of the practical guidelines that are here. In the first place, the church does this when its own members are serious about their own salvation personally. When you and I as individual members of God’s family are people who take it to heart that we are to be involved in working out our own salvation, then we begin to make a difference. Now he is not saying here that we begin to earn our salvation. Paul has already written so much about God’s grace and his goodness and the gift offered to us on the basis of what Christ has done. But what he is saying here is, “Nobody can claim that he has accepted God’s gift without that beginning to make a difference in his life.” He is saying, “You now are to live that salvation. You are to make it actual in your life. You are to make progress toward it. If you are a Christian, you are to live like a Christian.” That is the thought in this passage here. It involves obedience to the Lord. When I hear of the gospel of Christ and I obey it, I become a Christian. But when I hear the teaching of Christ, when I hear what he said about how to live and I begin to obey that, then I am living as a Christian. That is what is involved in working out our own salvation.
Work is a part of a Christian life that is easily overlooked. Sometimes it happens because of our misunderstanding of God’s grace. A writer named Fred Craddock pointed out that there are three terms for work in this little short paragraph. He says “they involve perspiration, calluses, sore back and bone weariness.” And he says, “From work, no doctrine of grace protects us.” That is a thought that is important. Then he makes this observation. “The church is to actualize in concrete ways in energy-burning, time-consuming endeavors the mind of Christ. Is there not a danger of work slipping over the line into self-righteousness or work righteousness?” He says “that danger has apparently driven some members and ministers straight to the hammock as the only place where the doctrine of grace can be kept safe.” There is a little bit of tongue-and-cheek in that statement. It makes us think though. Am I serious about my own salvation or not? Does it even cross my mind at any time except 10 o’clock on Sunday morning? Worse, does it even cross my mind then?
Secondly, in order for us to shine in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, we need to be people who have some respect for God’s providential working in the lives of his people. By providence I mean that God works non-miraculously in the working of the natural world in real life every day in the lives of his people. In verse 13 Paul points it out. “It is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works in us and on us in the circumstances in which he allows life to place us in his providence and his care. Hardly any experience or circumstance of life can come without it having the potential to lead to growth and development in a Christian’s heart and his character.
Paul says this is to be approached with fear and trembling. He is not talking about anxiety. He is talking about the fact that we realize we are in the presence of God as we live from day to day and that he is at work on us. When you drive down the highway, you see places where it says “Work Zone.” Usually there will be a sign that says “Fines Doubled in this work zone.” You drive through that with fear and trembling. The thought is if you can see that when you are in the presence of “men at work,” what should be our attitudes when we are in the presence of “God at work.” God hasn’t taken a vacation from us. He hasn’t forgotten us. Our kids at camp sing a little song “He’s still working on me, to make me what I ought to be.” God is at work, and we have confidence in his activity.
Third, we need to be people who approach life with some contentment and dignity and respect. Verse 14 tells us to do things without grumbling and questioning. I used to think that just dealt with our treatment of each other. “Let’s not be fussing at each other!” But I have learned there is a lot more involved in this passage than that. What this is talking about is for us to be people who are not always complaining and finding fault with what God does. Verse 13 mentions God at work. Verse 14 mentions not murmuring and complaining and griping all the time. We get to the place where we overlook everything good God does, like the Israelites did, and complain about all the rest of it, comparing everything unfavorably with what good old God has done for us. Then that attitude becomes a kind of “wise guy” type cynicism that is ill-natured and cannot be satisfied, and it begins to be directed at each other. Paul says that dishonors the work of God. Develop some contentment in your life, some appreciation for the good that is there.
Next he says that we are to show lives that are upright and honorable. Verse 15 says “that you may be blameless and innocent.” The first word means to live without reproach, as far as other people are concerned, outwardly. Innocence, though, has to do with purity of motive - people whose hearts are open to God and who are not trying to manipulate the system to get by with something behind the scenes, and then people who are without blemish in the midst of this crooked and twisted generation. “Without blemish” is the word applied to Jesus who offered himself as a sacrifice to God without blemish.
One thing that I want to point out from verse 15 is the need for us to understand our place as examples properly. The Bible never tells us to be examples to the world. Did you realize that? We are never going to change this world by being examples to the world. If you show a believer to the world, the world will pick him to pieces. What we are called upon to do is to be examples to each other ((I Tim. 4:12) and to be blameless and innocent and without blemish in the presence of the world. Our example for each other, as was mentioned earlier about our Golden Agers, is precious but that is not the power that changes the world.
Next, notice that we are to be in this world holding fast to the word of life (v. 16). There is some question about how that phrase should be translated. Half the time people put it “holding forth the word of life” in terms of holding the gospel forward, letting it be the power that changes our lives. Half the time it is translated “holding to.” May I suggest that really we can’t do one without the other? You can’t hold it forth if you don’t hold to it. You can’t hold to it without holding it forth. It is like a great torch that is lit with a burning flame. If you hold it too close to it, it burns you. You take a little candle and light it. If you just stand there and hold it, it will drip down on your hand and burn it. If you hold it out, then the wax drops without getting on you. The idea would be that the Lord’s word is somewhat that way. We hold it forward. We say to people, “Here is the answer that we are looking for in our lives.” If we do that, then Paul wouldn’t have run and been disqualified. He wouldn’t have produced something in his labor that then is rejected as worthless.
Verse 17 and 18 say that all these things we have mentioned – concern for our own salvation, respect for God’s work, the uncomplaining attitude, the pure and holy life, the holding forth the word of life – all of that has to be done in an atmosphere of joyful service. Paul paints a strangely, beautiful picture in verse 17 and 18. The faith of the Philippians is pictured like a sacrifice that is being offered. And then Paul’s own blood, which he realizes may be shed – he may be put to death in that Roman prison – he sees his blood like the drink offering in the Old Testament poured out on the altar with that sacrifice of the Philippians. It is not heartbreak, he says. It is to be done with joy – joyful service.
The picture of light in a world – I notice that some versions translate this as “shine like stars in the universe.” Maybe the best picture of it is like the light that shines through a gemstone and is turned into a beautiful, glorious thing because of that. It shows the source but the beauty of what God has wrought and what God has produced.
The church is about more than calling the world names, talking about how bad the world has become. The church is here to make a difference in the world. Let us be people, then, who live as children of God in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.
On the Day of Pentecost the death and resurrection and the exultation of Jesus was proclaimed openly and powerfully. The people having been convicted by it asked, “What shall we do?” They were told to repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:40 says, “And with many other words he, Peter, bore witness and continued to exhort them saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’” How do you do that? By believing in Christ so much that you turn away from sin and be baptized into him so that God can raise you up to walk in newness of life where you begin to live in the midst of this crooked generation and make a difference in it by holding forth the word of God. Wouldn’t you like to begin to make that your way of life today? If we can help you in that same response, would you let it be known by coming while we stand and sing together?