Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Title:What manner of life should Gospel Partners imitate?
Scripture Text: Philippians 2:12-30
Role models help so much to develop a person into a particular role. It is the same for gospel partners. In this message, we look at the Timothy and Epaphroditus, whom Paul highlights for us as role models to follow, and how they are ultimately imitators of Christ himself.
Introduction: “Work out your salvation” (2:12-13)
12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 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, 16 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. 17 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. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. 19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. 25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
It sounds so unReformed does it not? The call to “work out your salvation”. It sounds unPauline, to put the words “work” and salvation” in the same sentence, not for the purpose of contrast, but in way that is complementary.
Are we not saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works? Why then call us to work out our salvation? What does our work have to do with our salvation? Paul, did you not get the Reformation Memo? Do you not know, Paul, that whatever work we have to do, Christ has done it on your behalf?
And so all that is left for us to “do” is to have faith in Christ? All that we need to do as far as our salvation is concerned, is to believe in Christ and his finished work on the cross.
Coming into a Reformed church, it is hard to be faulted for thinking that it is our faith, not our works, that truly matters. That it is our believing, not our living, that actually counts.
This is the essence of a cognitive faith, of a doctrinal Christianity.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a poem titled The Grand Inquisitor. In this poem, Christ returns to earth, to Spain, during the time of the Inquisition. He re-enacts a series of miracles from the Gospels as proof of his identity. And people start worshipping him as the divine Christ. But the church leaders of the inquisition arrests Jesus and sentences him to death. And in the prison cell, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus to explain to him why he has to, you know, go.
He says something like this: the Church has no need of you. We have come up with a system, and it works without you. Your very presence imposes a moral burden on human beings that is too much for them to bear. We’ve made it possible for Christians to be Christians. We have the bible to teach them, we have the commandments to direct them, we have the sacraments to assure them, we have the priesthood to absolve them. Our Christianity is doable, it is manageable, it is, for some, even comfortable. You being here will mess everything up for everyone.
The Grand Inquisitor believes that Christ has thought too highly of Christians. He wants to do away with Jesus because he believes that the only way Christians can remain in Christianity is if Christ wasn’t part of it. The presence of Christ is destructive to the church. Because we are called to follow him, because we are called to imitate him, because we are called to be like him, his actual presence in our midst, places a moral burden on us that is too great to bear. His way of life is so radical, human beings will find it impossible to be a Christian. No one would be a Christian. And so Christ would destroy the church by his very presence. For the sake of the church, the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, they must do away with him.
It’s a work of fiction, but it raises a fascinating question: what exactly is the nature of the Christian faith? It is about believing in Jesus, or is it about living like Jesus? Are we saved by intellectually assenting to the proposition that two thousand years ago, a man known as Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, and that he died on the cross, and three days later rose to life again, and now he is seated at the right hand of God and will return to establish his everlasting kingdom? Is intellectual agreement to these set of facts the essence of what it means to be a Christian? I know my life is nothing like Christ but don’t worry, I’m not lost. For I believe.
In several of his writings, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously coined the statement: “God is dead”. He was a passionate atheist, but he grew up in a Christian home. In fact, his father was a pastor. Now, Nietzche’s main criticism of Christianity wasn’t its theology, rather, he was disaffected by Christianity “taking the easy way out” by insisting upon the statement of faith rather than the embodiment of faith – which is the imitation of Christ.
To Nietzche, unless you embody a truth, it is not truth to you. Belief cannot simply exist at the level of thinking; it must be embodied at the level of our being. Belief is to be lived.
To believe in Christ, means to be living like Christ. To conceive of faith primarily as intellectual assent to a set of propositions, is to reduce our religion to a doctrinal Christianity, where right thinking is insisted, whereas right living is merely encouraged. Where you will be held accountable for every unorthodox word you teach, but you can mostly get away with the unloving words you speak.
Doctrinal Christianity is a brand of Christianity that seems to think that when Jesus said, “follow me”, that what he really meant was “find out all you can about me”. That discipleship is a more a way of reading the bible, than a way of living out the gospel. Doctrinal Christianity is a type of Christianity that takes the gospel seriously for the purpose of conversion. And doesn’t quite know what the gospel is good for thereafter.
A typical conversation in Doctrinal Christianity might go something like this:
So I believe in the gospel. What’s next?
Well, you really believe?
Yes I really believe.
You said the sinners prayer, baptized?
Yep I said the sinners prayer, just baptized,
Well, next stop heaven, I guess.
Do I have to do anything else?
Did you say do anything? You’re saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Not by works. What do you mean do anything else?
Wait, okay, do some things. Avoid the big sins, you know, murder, stealing, homosexuality, those sort of things. Erm, no tattoos, no swearing, especially in church. That’s important. You wanna drink, drink in private. But no smoking, anywhere, obviously, come on. Other than that, erm, you know, live a moral life, go to church, read your bible, pray everyday. Get an honest job, donate some money.
Generally speaking, do what everyone else in church is doing, I guess, and you’re more or less there.
How about following the example of Jesus?
Following the example of Jesus? Well, ideally duh. I mean, no one’s stopping you, obviously. I mean, that’s good. Give it your best shot. But if you fail, you know, it’s Jesus, you’re gonna fail. The important thing is to believe. Get this, the Pharisees, right, the Pharisees call you to “behave” but Christianity calls you to “believe”. Ultimately, it is about your faith. Not about your works. Go in peace.
You see, what results from doctrinal Christianity is a community of believers who are extremely concerned that they believe in same gospel that Paul believed in, but are quite alright if their manner of life differed widely from the manner of life that Paul lived.
But as concerned as he was about sound doctrine, the apostle Paul never endorses this brand of doctrinal Christianity. He is never content with allowing our faith to remain in our heads with without also transforming our hearts and our hands. Paul is able to call us to “work out our salvation” not least because our salvation rests on our faith, and while faith is a way of thinking, it is never less than a way of living.
12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Paul is exhorting us here to imitate Christ. A few verses earlier, he declares to us how Christ was obedient to the point of death. Therefore, we too must obey. We must share his attitude of mind, that will issue forth in an obedient way of life. We work out our salvation by imitating Christ, who was humble for the other.
The salvation in verse 12, an eccle-sio-logical salvation, not so much an escha-to-logical salvation. By that I mean the salvation we are called to work out, in verse 12, has less to do with our future partaking of glory, and more to do with our present partnership in the gospel.
Remember, the clear sign of “our salvation” is that we are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”. (1:27-28)
This is how we work out our salvation: by obeying the call to gospel partnership, through the imitation of Christ.
How are we to work out our salvation?
We are to work it out with fear and trembling. And this phrase suggests that we are in the presence of God. In the bible “fear and trembling” is what happens to people when they realize they are in the presence of God.
Paul says obey, my dear friends, because even though I am absent, Christ is present. And here’s the good news: Christ is present with us, is not as an external invigilator of our lives, but as an internal power for our lives.
You see, The Grand Inquisitor is right about this fact. He is right that the presence of Christ places a moral burden on the Christian. But he is wrong to believe that this moral burden is too great for Christians to bear.
We are able to bear the moral burden of imitating Christ because it is no less than God himself who bears that burden for us. He works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We are able, because God is able. He began this work, he is doing this work, and he will finish this work in us.
God is the decisive actor in our working out of our salvation. He acts at the level of our will, so our work will be joyful. He acts at the level of our work, so our work will be fruitful.
But the fact remains, the example of Christ places a moral burden on the disciple of Christ. The imitation of Christ cannot be relegated to the periphery of the Christian life. Christ has set an example for us to follow.
Eph 5:1-2 “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, 2and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us”
1 Cor 11:1 “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
And Paul offers us further examples today of what it means to live like Christ, the ultimate gospel partner, so that we will not only believe in him, also be living like him. Paul will go on to write in Philippians,
Phil 3:17 “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
Phil 4:9 “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things”
This is what today’s passage is about. It’s about Gospel partners imitating the lifestyle of fellow gospel partners, who in turn are simply imitating the ultimate gospel partner, the Lord Jesus Christ.
With that, let’s look at three lifestyles that are exemplary for gospel partners.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 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, 16 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. 17 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. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
If you never read Philippians, and you were given a theological quiz, which goes, fill in the blank “ ___________ 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”. What would you put?
What can we possibly do, that would confer upon us such lofty descriptions such as being “blameless and innocent”, “children of God”, “shining as lights in the world”? Do we give all we have to the poor? Do we die for the sake of the gospel? Read the bible and pray everyday? What would you put in the blank?
Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,”. You want to be blameless and innocent, a child of God without stain, shining like a star in the midst of a dark and fallen world? Just stop grumbling and disputing. How many of us, would have put that down as the answer?
What is it about grumbling and disputing that makes them so significant to the Christian life?
Well, here is a clue. Listen to the language of grumbling: “how could this happen to me?”, “how can others treat me this way?”, “Do you know how much I suffered?”, “Do people know how hard I work?”, “I won’t allow myself to be treated this way”, “I deserve better than this”, “Do people not care about the way I feel?”, “Why have you done this to me?”, “This is not fair to me”.
Do you see, grumbling is rooted in a self-centeredness that bears the fruit of self-pity. Grumbling is the out-working of prideful mindset. And so the humble will not grumble.
So, friends, when was the last time you grumbled? About your work colleagues, about your spouse, about your church, about your situation? Do you have a tendency to grumble? And what does that reveal about your mindset and your heart?
Friends, it is not possible to imitate Christ and retain a lifestyle marked by grumbling, for the example of Christ, was one that did all things without grumbling.
Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
1 Pet 2:23. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
When Paul was in prison and there were some who preached the gospel in order to provoke him, he would have been well within reason to grumble, but he did not. Instead he rejoiced. Because Paul didn’t make his life about himself. He made it about Christ, he made it about the church. So it didn’t matter what happened to him, or how people treated him. He saw no reason to grumble because it wasn’t about him.
Disputing, in my view, is simply taking your grumbling a step further, you actualize your grumbling and confront the person you are grumbling against. Which leads to disputing. But it begins with grumbling.
And Paul says, the humble children of God will do all things without grumbling, and if you do that, if you would only stop grumbling, you will stand out from this world, like star shines in the midnight sky.
Can you imagine, friends, what would happen if you simply ceased grumbling altogether? Some of you, your friends won’t recognize you. A Singaporean which doesn’t grumble! The Straits Times will do a feature story on you. They will all want to know why? Why in this world full of difficult people, full of stressful situations, full of occasions when things don’t go your way. How do you not grumble at all? And you can say, “because I know a Saviour who didn’t, and I’m holding fast to his gospel, the word of life”. “Because I know a God who has blessed me with every spiritual blessing in his Son, there’s every reason to praise, and no reason to grumble.”
You see, we don’t have to say a lot to be a great evangelist, in fact, perhaps we just need to say less.
In a world rife with anger, disappointment, retaliation, discontentment, resentment, in a world of complaining and disputing, our conspicuous lack of grumbling and apparent joy would set us apart; we will be a candle in a dark place, a city on a hill. Church, you are the light of the world, let your light shine, by ceasing your grumbling.
Friends, resist the great temptation to turn grumbling into a respectable sin. You know, those sins that everyone else is doing, so no one really points it out, and everyone kind of just accepts its presence in the church? Let’s not tolerate grumbling amongst the children of God. Let’s not assume that grumbling is innocuous, for it is insidious. It is blameworthy, it is sin.
Everytime you grumble, you betray a mindset that is unlike Christ. Everytime you grumble you reveal a deficiency in either the comprehension of the gospel in your head, or an appropriation the gospel in your heart. Do all things without grumbling or disputing by holding fast to the word of life.
And then Paul uses himself as an example. “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.” Even if he ends up dying for his gospel partners, he will not grumble, he will in fact do the exact opposite. He will rejoice. They should imitate him, and likewise rejoice.
Like Children of God, do not grumble or dispute, but instead rejoice.
Second example to imitate: Timothy
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.
“I hope to send Timothy to you soon… for I have no one like him.” The description “no one like him”, is translated from the Greek word “iso-psychos”, we have seen the word “psychos” used before. It’s translated “one mind” in 1:27, and “one accord” in 2:2.
Iso means equal. Isosceles triangle. A triangle with 2 sides of equal length. So when Paul says that he has in Timothy an “iso-psychos”. Paul is literally saying that that Timothy is of “equal-soul” with him. Timothy shares the same soul as Paul, the are like-minded and like-hearted. Timothy has so imitated Paul, he is not an equal-soul with Paul.
So the phrase that “I have no one like him”, could better translated, “In Timothy, Paul has someone just like him.” They are cut from the same cloth. This spiritual to Paul is chip off the old block.
Do you see the principle, gospel partners are those who imitate faithful gospel partners. And their imitation of each other is ultimately an imitation of Christ himself, who is the ultimate Gospel Partner.
Notice another way Paul describes Timothy in verse 21. “they all seek their own interests, not those of _______”let’s play fill in the blank again. They all seek their own interests, not those of “others”.
It’s word for word of verse 4. “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
But Paul uses the same wording but introduces a twist at the end. they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is interested in others. Jesus is interested in the church. By changing one word, Paul connects Timothy’s imitation of Paul to the ultimate imitation of Christ.
But how does Paul know that Timothy seeks the interests of Christ? Because he is “genuinely concerned for your welfare”. The word concerned is translated “anxious” in 4:6. Gospel partners, are you concerned for the welfare of your fellow partners in the gospel? Are you anxious for others? Or are your concerns limited to the horizon of your immediate family?
Does your heart ache when someone else’s child is ill? Is your wallet open to the financial needs of another? Do you use your gifts for the benefit of the partnership? Or more simply, do you pray often for the church, her leaders, for your CG members? In your prayer life, do you display a concern for the interests of others beyond your own? That’s what a gospel partner does. Christ himself ever lives and pleads for us.
Like Timothy, seek not your own interests, but the interest of Christ.
And our final example to emulate: Epaphroditus.
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Epaphroditus appears to be the consummate gospel partner. Paul gives him no less than five titles to describe what Epaphroditus means to him. Brother, fellow worker, fellow solder, the Philippian’s messenger, and servant to Paul’s need. The identity of a gospel partner encompasses all these categories.
But we begin to gain some insight to the sort of man Epaphroditus was in v26. “for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill”.
The one occasion when you can be forgiven for self-indulgence, the one time when everyone will give you a free pass to think about yourself and give you permission to wallow in self-pity is when you are on your death bed. When you sick to the point of death. At that point, you can make it about you. And everyone will be okay.
In those moments, Epaphroditus made it about others. He was distressed because he knew that the church was anxious because of his illness. This man’s interests is so bound up with the interests of others, his distress is felt in the distress of others.
And the very reason why he nearly died in the first place was because he risked his life for sake of his gospel partner. And Paul calls what he has done “work of Christ”.
“For he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”
Because dying in the service of others is the work of Christ on the cross.
In coming to near to death for the sake of Gospel partnership, Epaphroditus is imitating Christ, who was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross in humble service for others. It displays the mind of Christ, who thought of others more significant than himself, who looked not to his interests, but to ours.
Like Epaphroditus, give your life to the work of Christ.
Church, in our passage this morning, Paul does not detail any profound doctrine, he merely shares with us examples the Christ-centered lifestyles of faithful gospel partners. He writes these verses not so much to inform our way of thinking, but to model for us a way of living.
So my fear this morning isn’t that you leave this service without having understood the passage. My fear is that you will leave this service satisfied with simply having understood the passage. The battle today will not be fought in our heads but in our hearts. The struggle today will not be in figuring out the text, the struggle will in living out the text.
Today’s passage, more directly so than others, is meant to shape the working out of our salvation. It is meant to shape our lives, as we imitate our Lord and Saviour – Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Father Lord, affix our eyes on these faithful gospel partners, that you have given us as examples to follow in your holy word. May we imitate them, as they imitate your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.