philippians 2:12-18 [lights in the world]

Written by Diana Trautwein

Recently retired after 17 years of pastoral ministry - having heard God's call at mid-life - Diana wants to learn how to finish well. Married to Dick for 47 years, mother to 3 grown kids and grandmother to 8, she loves wrestling with God through scripture and life. And usually, she manages to wait for the blessing. She is certified as a spiritual director, meeting monthly with people who long to know God more intimately, and thoroughly enjoying the wonderful world of cyberspace, now that she has a little more room on her plate.

July 6, 2011

[serialposts]Read Philippians 2:12-18 (ESV, NIV, The Message)

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Actually, the rubber has been meeting the road for a while now. From the very beginning of this lovely letter to the saints of Philippi, Paul mixes together powerful statements of theology with personal words of counsel. He began by thanking God for these friends, declaring his love and gratitude boldly and personally. And interspersed along the way have been small comments here and there, words which offer clues to his primary pastoral concerns.

“I pray that your love for each other will overflow more and more and that you will keep on growing…” (1:9, NRSV).

“…if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others get ahead.” (2:1-2, The Message)

Paul then moves on in chapter 2 to record one of the most beautiful hymns of praise ever written. As Ryan helped us see on Monday, verses 5-11 contain an exquisite summary of the downward-moving grace of God, grace made palpable in the living, incarnate Jesus, the one who willingly humbled himself that we might have life. And using that magnificent, ethereal word picture as a jumping off point, Paul immediately moves to the road, the one the Philippians – and we – must walk each and every day, right here on planet earth.

And the verses that open this stretch of ethical teaching are words often found at the center of any discussion on faith vs. works:

“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2:12-13, NRSV)

So…which is it, Paul? Are we to work out our own salvation? Or is God doing the work in us? And what, exactly, do you mean by working out our salvation anyhow? And how is God involved in this whole process? These two verses, and the questions they generate, have had a profound impact on my own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, saved by grace and called to fruitful, faithful living.

Because these words pretty much lay out the basics of the Christian journey. It is GOD who enables our wills to follow, it is grace which comes first. Yet it is WE who must live our oh-so-daily lives empowered by that grace, partnering with God as we choose our words, our actions, our attitudes. For anyone who has ever struggled to find that balance, the words ‘fear and trembling’ are perfect!

One last, powerful thought on this chunk of scripture: Gordon Fee (Philippians, IVP, 1999) looks at these verses in a more communal sense, pondering how we work out our own salvation together as Christ-followers. Carefully, lovingly, we are called to, “do all things without murmuring or arguing,” (vs. 14) so that we may, “shine like stars in the world.” (vs. 15).

For this is what’s at the heart of Paul’s word to his friends in Philippi: LOVE EACH OTHER, work together so that those who don’t yet know the love of Jesus will see you shining and want to know where all that light is coming from. Because done right, when we are humbly following Jesus together, the light shines ever so much more brightly, don’t you think?

Maybe we should teach our children to link arms whenever they sing, “This Little Light of Mine.” And maybe we should do the same.


  1. Charles Bailey

    The Christian should be offering to all the Word of Life, that is to say, the word which gives life. This Christian missionary endeavour has two aspects. (a) It is the proclamation of the offer of the gospel in words which are clear and unmistakable. (b) It is the witness of a life that is absolutely straight in a world which is warped and twisted. It is the offer of light in a world which is dark. Christians are to be lights in the world. The word used for lights is the same as is used in the creation story of the sun and the moon which God set in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth. The Christian offers and demonstrates straightness in a twisted world and light in a dark world. Another well written study by Diana Trautwein.

  2. Sheila Seiler Lagrand

    This is beautiful and thoughtful, Diana. Thank you.

    Charles, I despair at the thought of being “absolutely straight” in this world. I am the wretch they wrote that song about. I try…and I lean on His grace as I fall short. Every day.

    • Lyla Lindquist

      Sheila, I struggle sometimes to even mouth the words of that other old hymn, let alone sing it out loud, “Others will trust Him if only you prove / true every moment you live.” If it depended on my “every moment” we’d all be doomed. 

      Diana puts the spotlight on such a powerful truth here — we shine when we love. Not when we get it right, but when we demonstrate His grace to one another when we don’t get it right. When Jesus prayed for us, this was His thing — that we’d be one so that others would believe.

      Maybe, Diana, when they link arms and sing they should change just that one word: this little light of ours 🙂

  3. Daniel Humphries

    Great points, Diana. I think the only hope we have of winning our culture to Christ is through love. All of our rhetoric, shouting, placard waving and calls for holiness don’t make hardly the impact as when we shower those around us with the same love and extravagant grace that we’ve been given.

    Judged apart from His blood, I’m a total wreck and a failure. With grace, and help from mentoring words like these from Paul, I’m able to keep plodding towards the prize.

  4. Ryan Tate

    I’m always reminded in this verse (“work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work within you”) that only Godly power makes Godly effort possible. Without that divine power indwelling in us, our efforts are futile and exhausting. Thank you for explaining that with beauty, light, and clarity, Diana.

  5. Diana Trautwein

    Somehow, I missed all these fine comments.  Thanks, friends, for reading and reflecting with me. And I do believe that it is Love that will shine the light of the gospel into a needy world – and it’s lookin’ mighty dark out at times. 

    And Lyla, you are spot on – it is not about getting it right, it’s about learning to first receive and then to offer the love of God.  Period. Yes, we need to wrestle with what we believe and why we believe it.  But even when we disagree, we can offer love to one another. The strongest, clearest, most helpful light the church ever shines is when it is offering loving care to people who need it, both within the community of faith and outside it.  I’ve seen this happen so often in times of disaster and tragedy.  Would that we could keep that openness to the movement of the Spirit through all the dailyness of life. That seems, however, to be the hardest thing of all.  I am so thankful for grace that covers the messes I make, that’s for sure.


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philippians 2:12-18 [lights in the world]

by Diana Trautwein time to read: 3 min