Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 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.
Philippians 2:14-18 ESV
To quickly recap our studies so far, Paul began the letter by writing a greeting to the Philippians in which he expressed his thanksgiving for them to God and prayed for their continued growth in the Lord. He then reassured them that God was already using his imprisonment for the expansion of the gospel and that He would continue to do so. Finally, he commanded them to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by humbly serving one another (Jesus being the supreme example of this) and continuing to work out their own salvation, knowing that God provides the ability to obey.
If verses 12-13 were a general call to obedience, within these verses Paul gives a specific call to obey. Particularly, Paul commands us to do all things without grumbling or disputing but to instead live as children of God without blemish, which of course is really another way of telling us to be citizens worthy of the gospel. He then concludes that such a life will make the gospel visible to those without it, while also encouraging other believers in the faith.
WITHOUT GRUMBLING OR DISPUTING // VERSES 14-16
After appealing for us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, Paul now gives us a specific command: do all things without grumbling or disputing. Since this is the key command presented here, we must take sufficient time to understand why the apostle would specifically target grumbling and disputing, especially since, if we are honest with ourselves, those don’t sound incredibly serious.
What then is the big deal about grumbling and disputing? We first need to consider exactly what Paul means by these words. Grumbling, which is also often translated as murmuring, is the act of unhappily complaining of something underneath your breath, and it reveals a hidden reluctance, a discontentment. Peter commands us show hospitality without grumbling, since grumbling is not the earnest love that should mark a Christian (1 Peter 4:8-9). Disputing might also be translated as complaining or arguing. With this, Paul is not suggesting that questioning and arguing are always sins; however, discontented nitpicking or even contentious quarreling is sinful because it can easily cause divisions within the church, which, of course, is antithetical to being of the same mind and love. Both, thus, are rooted in a heart of discontentment.
Yet still, why does Paul warn us about these two things specifically? In many ways, this section of verses closes out the thought that verse 27 of chapter one began. He is desiring to bring the idea of being citizens worthy of the gospel to close (even though he will return to it again in chapter three), and grumbling and disputing run counter to the unified vision that Paul has been urging. Our previous discussion regarding the danger of false humility returns into play again. What is, after all, grumbling if not a reveal of false humility?
But Paul is also closing out this section with a series of subtle Old Testament concepts and references. This is a means of grounding the Philippians (a Gentile-majority church) in the overall salvation plan of God. He is reminding them that the Old Testament story is their story. In Christ, the people of God include Gentiles, and the patriarchs of Israel are now our fathers as well (1 Corinthians 10:1).
This is especially important today. Quite recently a megachurch pastor declared in a sermon that Christianity needs to be detached from the Old Testament. Such a thought is disastrous because detaching from the Old Testament would force us to also detach from the New, since it is the fulfillment (not the abolishment) of the Old. The New Testament writers frequently appealed to the Old Testament for their arguments, and Paul is obviously reflecting the Old Testament here in order to deepen the impact of his exhortations. He is filling these words with the historical weight of God’s chosen people, thereby reminding the Philippians that they are a part of the story now.
Of course, in order to feel the impact of these references and allusions, we must have a reasonable understanding of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee elaborates on this point:
We should further point out that such a use of the OT presupposes (a) that as in all the Pauline churches these early Gentile believers were thoroughly acquainted with their Bibles, (b) that they would recognize this application of the OT texts to Paul’s and their situations, and (c) that they would do so because of the basically oral nature of the culture, in which the constant hearing of the same “stories” would reinforce them deeply into their memories. To put it bluntly, we may rightly assume that these early Gentile believers knew the OT infinitely better than most Christians do today. (18)
With this in mind (and to return to our previous question), grumbling and complaining were significant sins throughout the desert wanderings of the Israelites. In Numbers 17:10, God commands Aaron’s budded staff to be kept in view of the Israelites “as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.” Obviously, God considered grumbling and complaining about the one who saved them out of Egypt and was feeding them heavenly bread in the desert to be a serious offense. Thus, he is exhorting them not to follow after the example of the Israelites. Instead, the apostle wants them to be blameless and innocent. Paul’s desire for the Philippians to be blameless and innocent takes us back to his opening prayer for them to “be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:10).
Children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation is a description of who the Philippians are as believers, one which goes hand-in-hand with being citizens of heaven. The saving work of Christ adopts us as children of God and naturalizes us as citizens of God’s kingdom. But this phrase is also a reversal of Deuteronomy 32:5, in which Moses declared: “They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” When the Israelites grumbled against God in the desert, He declared them to be a crooked and twisted generation and denounced their status as His children. However, Paul pronounces the opposite upon the Philippians. They are children of God. They are without blemish, not blemished. They are in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, although not a part of it.
How is it, therefore, that the Philippians were succeeding where the Israelites failed? Through Christ, the Philippians were recipients of what was only a promise in the Old Testament. Through Ezekiel, God declared, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Followers of Christ now have the indwelling Spirit, who enables us to call God our Father and to walk in obedience to Him. By the love of the Father, the atonement in Jesus, and the empowerment of the Spirit, we are children of God. This, of course, does not mean that the Old Testament saints were saved outside the saving work of Jesus. By no means! Just as we today look backward to the sacrifice of Christ, they looked forward. Salvation still came only through Christ; however, the indwelling of the Spirit was not present, except for specific callings.
Paul now takes an evangelistic twist as he discusses how we are to interact with crooked and twisted generation around us. Among whom you shine as lights in the world is most likely an homage to Daniel 12:3: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” Notice the evangelistic nature of both Paul’s thought here and the verse from Daniel, yet there are differences. Daniel seems to be using shine as a reward (future tense) for being wise and turning many to righteousness. Shining is thus tied to the resurrection into eternal life described in Daniel 12:2. Paul, however, writes of the Philippians as shining (present tense) in the midst of the world and its crooked and twisted generation. This is fitting since Jesus states: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Yes, our hope is in our resurrection from the dead, but eternal life does not begin then. Recall Jesus’ answer to Martha after the death of her brother, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25). Christ is Himself life everlasting, so those who are in Christ walk in eternal life now, even if we only see it in part. In the resurrection, we will receive glorified bodies, but we have already been spiritual raised from the dead in this life. The Christian, therefore, should be known by his or her spiritual resurrection that precedes our physical resurrection. The evidence of Jesus within us must be clear to the world. Our lifestyle of blameless and innocent lack of grumbling and disputing is a living display of the gospel to the world for the glory of God. Or as Jesus says it:
Matthew 5:14-16 | You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Given that holding fast to the word of life is elaborating upon the previous idea implies that this phrase is meant to be evangelistic as well. The Greek word here can mean both hold onto and hold forth (or to present). Thus, Paul is probably not commanding us to clutch the gospel to us as tightly as possible so that no one can take it from us. Rather, he is urging us to have the gospel in our arms at all time, ready to share it with any who might listen. Since the gospel is truly the word of eternal life, why are we not prepared constantly to share it? The sad reality is that most of us tend to be terrified of sharing the gospel because we rarely think of the gospel. We speak of the things that are most important to us. Our thoughts eventually become words. Perhaps if we followed the psalmist’s prescription of meditating on the Word day and night, we would be less frightened of holding out the word of life to the crooked and twisted generation around us.
Within the second half of verse 16, Paul presents his reasoning for the Philippians obedience to the previous phrases: so that at the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. To be honest, at first, this seems like a startlingly selfish reason. Wouldn’t it have been better if Paul had reminded them again of their completion at the day of Christ (1:6)? We must, however, keep in mind the deeply personal connection between Paul and the Philippians. Because of his great affection and longing for them, Paul also yearns for their continued faithfulness. The apostle’s joy, of course, was not tied to the Philippians; it was rooted in Christ alone. Yet if the Philippians fell away from the faith, it would have been a grievous wound upon him, and it would have meant that his efforts toward them were in vain. He desired their continued faith as an evidence and fruit of his work.
It is also worth noting that labor in vain is probably another Old Testament allusion. Isaiah 65:23 describes the new heavens and new earth in part as being where people “shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them.”
REJOICE // VERSES 17-18
The apostle concludes this section of text by calling the Philippians to be glad and rejoice with him. The command to rejoice is certainly one of the primary themes of the letter, but why is he telling them to rejoice here?
He first opens verse 17 with a conditional statement: even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith. A couple of remarks need to be made concerning this phrase. First, the imagery being used here is of the Levitical priest pouring out wine as a drink offering to the LORD; thus, it is not difficult imagine the wine being symbolic of blood. Indeed, our initial thought might be that Paul is referring to the possibility of his martyrdom, yet that does not seem to be the case. Recall that Paul was convinced that his imprisonment would not lead to death (1:25-26).
Second, since Paul probably isn’t referring to his potential martyrdom, it is more likely that he is speaking about his suffering in general for the sake of the gospel. Further evidence of this is Paul’s confidence that he would remain in the flesh for the Philippians’ “progress and joy in the faith” (1:25), while here is his poured on the sacrificial offering of their faith. He is, therefore, aiming that his manner of life, especially in the midst of his sufferings, would be a faithful example to the Philippians for the increase of their joy.
Third, if this is correct, Paul is poured out through living, not dying. As fearful as the prospect of dying might be, Paul understood that ultimately dying well was easier than living well. In death, he would find rest in Christ, but in life, he would continue to be the instrument of Christ’s work in others. Paul’s life was one constant drink offering before the LORD.
Let us take this to heart. The stories of the martyrs are both sorrowful and beautiful, but they are also easily romanticized. If we are not careful, we can treat the Christian life as one long wait for our big moment to prove our devotion to Christ in spite of the opposition. However, for the vast majority of Christians, that moment will never come. Instead, the regular moments that happen daily to every Christian knock at our door. Martyrdom is not the exclusive proof of devotion to Christ but rather each of us must take up our cross daily and actually be devoted to Jesus. Life must be an act of daily dying to self, a constant and living martyrdom. Do you want to prove your devotion to Christ? Read your Bible, even when you don’t feel like it. Pray, even when you don’t feel like it. Go to church, even when you don’t feel like it. Serve someone, even when you don’t feel like it. This is the life of death to which we are called. Death in life in order to find life in Christ.
Finally, Paul’s focus shifts to the Philippians at the end of verse 17: I am glad and rejoice with you all. Even in prison, suffering for the gospel, the apostle was glad and rejoiced with the Philippians upon the sacrificial offering of their faith. This seems to mean that Paul is rejoicing with them in the midst of their own suffering, which, as we should remember, is a gift of God alongside belief, and in 18 he calls them to rejoice with him in his suffering as well. To be clear, this is not Paul declaring his joy in the simple fact that the Philippians were suffering. Instead, he rejoiced in what God would produce in them through suffering, and he is inviting them to be similarly excited for what God is producing in him too. Likewise, we find joy and rejoice with others in suffering because we know that God will not fail to use it for His glory and our good.