Tuesday 27 March 2012

Shine like stars (Philippians 2:14-16)

Yesterday at the Chinese Church, we looked at Paul’s encouragement to Christians to continuously work out our salvation. That means, as followers of Jesus we are to be (1) consistent in our obedience, (2) confident in Christ’s work on the cross, and (3) courageous in living for the gospel.

One thing we didn’t have time to look at was how God uses our work as a witness to the world.

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.
Philippians 2:14-15

1. Do all things without grumbling or questioning

In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God.” That’s the positive encouragement. What we have here in Philippians is the negative discouragement, Do all things without grumbling or questioning. In the context of the letter, where Paul is separated from the church due to his imprisonment in Rome, it is likely that he is warning the believers from grumbling against their leaders. Notice how he immediately commends Timothy (verse 22: “But you know Timothy’s proven worth”) and Epaphroditus (verse 29: “So receive him in the Lord and honour such men.”) in the remaining verses of Chapter 2.

Yet Paul is also saying much more to us than simply, Don’t cause trouble, or Keep your complaints to yourselves. He uses a phrase from the Old Testament book of Exodus used to describe the nation of Israelites who have just been rescued from slavery in Egypt. In the desert, the Israelites repeatedly grumbled against Moses and questioned God’s goodness as they faced hunger (Exodus 16, where the word “grumbling” occurs six times) and thirst (Exodus 17 where the word “quarrel” or “question” occurs three times). In both cases, God responded to their grumbling and quarreling with grace and goodness - he sends the quail and manna for food; he instructs Moses to strike the rock releasing the water. Still, the tragedy of the Israelites’ dissatisfaction was this: They had so easily forgotten God’s salvation. Here were a people who been rescued from slavery, who had seen with their own eyes God’s power poured out upon Egypt, who had received the promise of even greater things - the Promised Land, the Tabernacle, the Law; but who had taken their salvation for granted.

Remember that the book of Exodus opens with the Israelites crying out to God (Exodus 2:23). God heard their cry, he remembered his promises to them, and he acted on those promises by sending Moses to save them. In times of difficulty and distress, we can call out to God who hears us, we should call out to Jesus who saves. But Paul is differentiates that sincere cry for help, that expression of helplessness, that call for justice, from an insincere heart that rejects God’s salvation and questions his goodness.

Do everything without grumbling or questioning, Paul says to us. It is a call to examine the attitudes of our actions, the motives behind our ministry, the sincerity of our service of one another and before God in whose kingdom we serve.

2. In the midst of a crooked and depraved generation

Paul contrasts the attitude of the Christian with that of a “crooked and depraved generation”. Who is he describing? At first glance, it looks like the non-believer. After all, he ends by speaking of Christians as lights shining brightly “in the world”. Yet that word “generation” should clue us in on the fact that Paul is still using the language of the Exodus (remember how Moses’ entire generation was excluded from the Promised Land), quoting a passage from Deuteronomy 32 known as the Song of Moses. Interestingly, this song echoes much of the language found here in Paul’s letter. Have a look:

They have dealt corruptly with him;
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Deuteronomy 32:5

Is Paul thinking of the non-believer? Yes, but I think a better name for it is non-receiver. The crooked and twisted generation was not a reference to pagans, to the Egyptians or to the Canaanites, all of whom did not know the God of the bible, all of whom worshipped other gods instead of the God of the bible. Rather, in his song, Moses is describing his own generation, his own people, the Israelites who knew God and yet chose to reject God. Rather than disbelieving God, they chose not to receive him as God.

It is in this sense that Paul is describing the world and contrasting the world against Christians, whom he calls, “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.” Paul does not mean that Christians are blameless in and of themselves. No, the only difference between them and the rest of the world is that Christians have received God’s promise of salvation. They are blameless because of the work of Jesus Christ who took their blemishes, meaning their sin and shame, upon himself, and transferred his righteousness and acceptance onto them. Jesus is the spotless lamb, without blemish, offered up on the cross in our place to take the blame of our punishment, to bear God’s anger for our sin.

The difference between the Christian and the world, between God’s children and God’s enemies, between the blameless and the blemished is simply this: It is Jesus. You either receive Jesus or reject Jesus. And Paul says this world has chosen to reject Jesus as Lord. We live amongst a non-receiving generation.

3. Among whom you shine like stars in the world

How then does God use us as his witnesses in this world? I think the answer might surprise you because here, at the end of verse 15, when we finally get to the exciting bit about “shining like stars”, which might have caused us to conjure up in our minds powerful images of mission, evangelism, acts of service, tangible displays of love - we find that verse 15 is not actually a command from Paul, but rather the result of a command. Paul does not say to Christians, “Shine!” (Or “Let your light shine before others,” as Jesus commands in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16). No, the command is not found in verse 15, but previously in verse 14: Do everything without grumbling or questioning.

In other words, it is not the impressiveness and the excellence of your lives as Christians that makes you shine like stars. The command is not to be the star - to win the X-Factor and sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” at the finals in front of Simon Cowell and the unbelieving world. That isn’t what Paul has in mind. Neither is it to build a successful multinational company so that you can use all your profits to plant churches around the world. That is not the command.

The command is to do everything without grumbling, without questioning in submission to God as an expression of our dependence upon God and our faith in Christ. Friends, this means you can do this right now. The way you are revising for that Tripos in June. The way you speak to your colleagues at work. The way you serve the Sunday School kids in church. The way you provide for your family at home. Do everything without grumbling or questioning, and Paul says, the world is going to notice the difference in your lives. Do this, Jesus says, and the world will recognise and give thanks to your Father in heaven.

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.
Matthew 5:16

Please don't mis-hear me. Of course you can and you should pursue excellence. Remember that Philippians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:31 are flip-sides of the same coin. Do everything to the glory of God, Paul writes to the Corinthians. Yet in the pursuit of excellence, be wary of making excellence your god (Hence the context of 1 Corinthians 10 is idolatry). Be careful of turning your job, your ministry, your witness into your basis for righteousness before God. I think that’s why the bible gives us both commands as a safeguard. Do all things to the glory of God. Do all things without bitterness. And as we do this, we learn obedience. As we obey this, we learn grace. As we lean on God’s grace, we experience God’s joy.

In other words, God wants his glory to be seen in every believer. God wants all Christians to shine for him no matter where they are, no matter what job they are in, no matter what situation of life they are dealing with. This is not a call to be a celebrity for Jesus. This is a reminder of the power the comes from trusting completely in Jesus in your day-to-day lives as children of God.

This is all it takes for the unbelieving world to sit up and take notice: Live for Jesus, trust in Jesus and you will shine for Jesus. Having said that, it will never be enough to change an unbelieving world. As important as it is to live consistently with the gospel and as attractive as it is to behold a life transformed by the gospel, in the end what the world needs is the gospel.

4. Holding out the word of life

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 labour in vain.
Philippians 2:16

The gospel must always be at the centre of our witness to Jesus. Otherwise, says Paul, it would all have been for nothing.

If you are a Christian, yes, it is important that you “live such good lives amongst the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” on that final day (1 Peter 2:12). But at some point, you will have to open your mouths. You will have to talk about Jesus. The gospel is the word of life. Only by hearing and responding to the gospel can anyone be saved.

If you are a non-Christian, maybe you have noticed how your Christian friends go about their daily lives - in the classroom, in the workplace, queueing in line at Sainsbury’s. I hope you have seen a difference. I hope these Christians have been loving, patient, generous, kind. Perhaps you might say to me, “No, actually there hasn’t been a difference,” or, “Their lives haven’t been consistent with the bible.” Yet I do want to draw your attention back to what Paul is saying here: the biggest difference isn’t in a changed life (as amazing as that is), the biggest is seen in the word that gives new life. The difference is the gospel - which says we can never be good enough for God. It is the gospel - which frankly tells us we all stand under the judgement of God. It is the good news - that Jesus Christ has taken our judgement and given us his reward through his death on the cross. Do you see this difference in the gospel?

Friends, if we do not see the gospel - that the gospel is central, that the gospel is absolutely essential, that the gospel alone saves us and changes us, Paul says, we have missed the plot. No amount of labour, evangelistic programs, acts of kindness, church events, sacrificial giving can ever replace the gospel. And that is such wonderful news, because the gospel is all about Jesus’ work. Not ours. We witness to his finished work on our behalf on the cross.

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