Philippians 2:12-18

Text Comment


In verses 12 and 13, we said last Lord’s Day morning, Paul urged sanctification, growth in holiness of life upon his readers. He tells them now that he is particularly interested in their holiness as it will be expressed by their unity. Unity has been Paul’s theme all along in this section. He began with it in 1:27 and he now finishes with it. As we have said, obviously disunity in that church was a growing problem. The background of Paul’s statement here is the grumbling of the Israelites in the Desert in Exodus 16. In Deut. 32:5 the Israelites in the wilderness are described as a “crooked and perverse generation.” Their grumbling was against God, to be sure, but it was also against their leader – Moses – and against one another. But here the crooked and depraved generation is not the church but the world around it. It was as striking for Paul to identify unbelieving Israel with the wicked Greco-Roman world of his time as it was for the Old Testament prophets to liken unbelieving Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah. But being in the church doesn’t make one righteous if he doesn’t have and live by faith in Christ. Many times in Paul’s letters Israel in the wilderness is invoked as the example of what Christians ought not to be. In 1 Cor. 10 Paul again employs the bad example of Israel in the wilderness to motivate a church torn by dissension and disunity. Again, as elsewhere in Paul’s letters, the use of Israel as a bad example may be due to the fact that the church is being troubled by Jewish Christians who fail to see that it is not being an Israelite, being a Jew, but living by faith that tells the tale. Israel often did not live by faith and when she did not God judged her and rejected her.

We are often taken back by the terms used to describe a faithful Christian life: blameless? – are we not all still profoundly sinful? – pure? – can anyone of us claim to be so? – without fault? – why then do we all need to confess our sins? But remember: throughout the Bible these terms are applied to people who manifestly were not sinless and perfect. A faithful Christian life is what is meant, and that notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of sin remains in every Christian. There is a great deal of difference between a faithful Christian and a non-Christian and these strong terms emphasize the immensity of that difference. Second, the Christian is always aspiring to and seeking nothing less than moral perfection. He falls short, to be sure, but he is not content with anything but perfect purity and a faultless life. In so many respects aspirations, intentions, and commitments define a human life. The worst part of the unbeliever’s life is not that he doesn’t love God or his neighbor, but that he doesn’t want to and doesn’t strive to.


The statement recollects the Lord’s in his Sermon on the Mount about Christians being the light of the world and therefore needing to let their light shine before men. Holding out the word of life is, again, the idea of the ministry of the gospel to others. We are to be light bearers to a dark world. Paul spoke of this earlier in chapter 1.

Two very characteristic Pauline notes are sounded here: 1) the thought of his taking pride – even getting some credit – for the salvation and Christian living of his converts when his life is brought into judgment – Paul was always anticipating the day of judgment – that is, the faithful Christians in Philippi would be more proof of the faithfulness of his stewardship as an apostle of the Lord Jesus; and 2) the honest recognition of the real danger that his work in a particular place might come to nothing. There is something wonderfully human and earthy in both and both serve to remind us of how completely God deals with us and views us as the responsible human beings we are. Our faithfulness matters. It is a real cause of things in the world. We will be rewarded for it; our deeds will follow us to heaven as we read in Revelation. If Christians do not continue to be faithful, a promising beginning will matter not at all.


In these last two verses Paul says, in effect, even if I should die a martyr’s death – he has admitted the possibility of it in chapter 1, though he doesn’t expect to die – I will rejoice in all of you as the fruit of my ministry – I have no real doubt about the genuineness of your commitment to Christ – and want you to rejoice with me for you too have been given the inconceivably great privilege of serving the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you remember reading in school Jonathan Swift’s famous satire, Gulliver’s Travels? On a number of voyages Captain Lemuel Gulliver encountered a variety of strange peoples. He first met, if you remember, the inhabitants of Lilliput, tiny people who became Gulliver’s great friends. But a more interesting discovery was that of the Houyhnhnms [Whinnims], creatures who resembled horses. These were beings of great wisdom and goodness. Though they looked like horses they were really people of the highest virtue. Their country was peaceful and prosperous, there was no deceit or ruthless ambition to be found among them; they had no word for lying. The desire of the Houyhnhnms was simply to do good. They denied all evil passions, refused to indulge in luxury or vice of any kind, and, of course, there was to be found in their country none of the terrible consequences in mind and body that result from the sins of lust and greed. In fact, the land would have been without defect altogether were it not for another race of thoroughly unpleasant, filthy, treacherous, and vicious creatures, the Yahoos – who looked just like men.

In Swift’s satire he is, in this way, giving expression to his low opinion of human beings and the lives they lead as well as to his idea of what human life and society ought to be like. In other words, placing the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos side by side, Swift shows us the wideness of the gulf that separates actual human life from what it ought to be.

Well Paul does not spin a yarn like Swift’s, but he too wants to tell of a race of creatures, of men and women, who differ remarkably and wonderfully from the ordinary society of human beings. He also wants to demonstrate how different these beings are from others and how distinctive their life in the world of men and how beautiful their behavior in comparison to that of ordinary men and women, the Yahoos who make up most of the population of this world, a people Paul does not hesitate to describe as a crooked and depraved generation. And taking together what Paul says, we might say that were a visitor from another world to land by accident on this planet of ours, he ought to find the Christians as different from the general society of men, and their life as morally superior as the Houyhnhnms’ life was to the Yahoos’.

“Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe…”

We are inclined to skim over a text like that without stopping to ponder what an extraordinary description of a Christian life it contains. Tell me. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if I were to describe you in those terms to some of your friends, especially some of your non-Christian friends? Your face would redden with embarrassment if I were to describe you in the hearing of your friends as blameless and pure, without fault, and a star illuminating the dark night of this world. As soon as you could get away from me you would hurry back to those friends to assure them that you didn’t think any such thing about yourself.

However, it wouldn’t take much to convince you that we live today in as thoroughly crooked and depraved a generation as did the Philippians in Paul’s day. Whether we are talking about pornography and sexual sin, venereal disease or abortion, marital unfaithfulness, domestic violence and child abuse, crime – whether committed by adults or children – or political corruption, drunkenness or drug use, cheating and other forms of deceit, or alienation, antagonism, and hatred, the Yahoos had nothing on us, nor did the citizens of the Greco-Roman world of the first century. How little conscience there was about killing babies in the ancient world is illustrated by a letter written in 1 B.C. by an Egyptian laborer to his wife – among the treasure trove of documents discovered at Oxyrhynchus – instructing her with regard to the baby she is expecting. “If it is a boy, keep it; if a girl expose it.” Our technology is more sophisticated, but our ethics are the same. The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous piece of Christian apologetics written in the first half of the 2nd century, mentions it as something noteworthy about Christians that they did not expose their babies.

In other words, Paul might very well have written the very same words to us that he wrote to his Christian friends in Philippi, because the opportunity to shine like stars lies before us as surely as it lay before our ancient brothers and sisters in the days of the New Testament. And who can possibly doubt that the same virtues Paul commends to the Philippian church would be as striking and attractive in our day as they were in that day?

Paul doesn’t, of course, give us an exhaustive list of the virtues of the Christian life. It is, as so often in his writings, a representative list. What are written here stand for all the fruits of the Holy Spirit and all the parts and pieces of Christian holiness. But hear them again.

“Do everything without complaining or arguing…” Have you stopped to think how much complaining and arguing there is in the world – even in your little part of the world – every single day? Don’t tell me that a person who is sweet-spirited, who is kind and respectful to others with whom he or she disagrees, who cheerfully submits even when required to do things he or she would rather not do, I say, don’t tell me that person won’t shine as a star shines in the night sky.

“Pure…” Purity in our dirty world cannot help but be noticed. And so the holding out of the word of life – striving by word and deed to bring love and life and peace in Christ to those around you.

Now, I know very well that Christians have a great deal of difficulty thinking of themselves this way. They are so conscious of their faults, so sharp-eyed in respect of their daily failures to love God and their neighbors as they ought, that the idea of their being a star in the heavens illuminating this dark world seems quite impossible to them.

But it is not impossible and it is simply unbelief for us to think it impossible. Think of it this way. There are some things that strike us as terribly wrong because they are so unnatural. We are stunned, for example, when parents abuse and batter their own children. It is terrible enough that a little child should be beaten. But for that child to be beaten by his own father or mother is an inconceivable outrage because mothers and fathers, of all people, are to love, to protect, and to nurture their children. It is, we so naturally say, a crime against nature and against reason itself.

But, you see, in precisely the same way, there is something profoundly unnatural, against nature itself, when Christians do not shine in a world as dark as this one. They are, Paul says elsewhere, new creations; all has become new in their lives, the old has passed away. They have been introduced into the fellowship of God’s own family and are now his own children. As Paul just said, God is at work in them both to will and to work according to his good pleasure. Is it conceivable that all of this change, this dramatic and fundamental change should have come to pass and it remain nevertheless invisible and undetectable? No! That would be a crime against nature – the new nature – and against reason.

That is Paul’s assumption and he expects us to share it! There is nothing more unnatural, unreasonable, impossible to explain or justify than that the children of God, new creatures in Christ should live complaining, bickering, angry, impure and selfish lives like all the people around them who have never met Christ Jesus, have never felt his love coursing through their hearts, and who haven’t God within them working to transform their lives. Paul’s point is very definitely not that he hopes that we will shine. The commentators support the NIV’s rendering of v. 15. He isn’t commanding the Philippian believers to shine; he is saying that they do! [Silva, 127; O’Brien, 295, 296] The verse reads: “…in a crooked and depraved generation in which you appear like stars…” His point is precisely that we will shine and must shine not only because the world around us is so dark but because that is what Christians are! They are the light of the world!

Some of you know that our son, James, whose full name is James Oliver Hamilton Rayburn, is named in part for Ian Hamilton, well known to this congregation as the pastor, formerly of the Church of Scotland congregation in New Milns and presently of the Presbyterian Church in England congregation in Cambridge. Ian became Florence and my dear friend during my graduate studies in Scotland and it was entirely natural for us to give his name to one of our sons. The Oliver is after another PCA pastor, this one from Australia now ministering in Florida, but that is another story. Florence recently asked Ian to write Jamie an account of his coming to faith in Christ so that Jamie would know something more of his namesake. Ian wrote, as you would expect, a highly interesting account of how he became a Christian as a Glaswegian teenager. I want to read some of that account to you.

“I was raised in a non-Christian home. My mother was a lapsed Roman Catholic and my father had no connection with anything religious or spiritual, except the Masonic Lodge (he paid lip service to the esoteric teachings of the Lodge). My mother, however, raised me to believe in God and to tell the truth. Loving my mum as I did, I would do anything to please her and avoid anything that would upset her. So, I tried to be the kind of boy she would be proud of.

“My parents did send me to the local Church of Scotland junior Sunday School (they never, never, attended church). I endured this until age 11, when I finally said that as they didn’t go to church it was not right for them to insist I did. Although I stopped Sunday School, I never doubted or questioned God’s existence; it seemed a moral and intellectual given to me.

“I suppose I was a relatively normal teenager. I lived in an area of 10,000 people, who all lived in social housing. The only person who owned their home in my area of Glasgow was the doctor (my mother longed for her ‘own back door’, but died before my father bought the apartment they lived in). I did reasonably well at school, though I was lazy. I enjoyed sports, music and girls!

“Life was gently moving along for me, but I had a sense that there was more to life. I remember lying in bed and thinking, ‘There must be more than this.’ One boy at high school intrigued me, as I recollect. He was very different from me. I was in the academic stream at school, he wasn’t. I played sports, he didn’t. I had an eye for the girls, he didn’t. But, he had a joy about him that attracted me. He later told me that he spoke with me about Jesus and the gospel. I have little recollection of that; it was the manner of his life that “hooked” me. He was different – I didn’t really understand why at the time.

“Late one Saturday evening, I bumped into him in the centre of Glasgow while out with a friend. We had been at a party and had left early. He had been playing in a gospel band. As we chatted he said, “Why not come along tomorrow to the Bible Class I go to in the afternoon?” My friend and I said we would and being a polite young man (!) I kept my word. When I turned up, my first thought was to see if there were any good looking girls present (there were). What I did not know then, was that the friend who invited me [his name was Albert] had told the Bible Class leader that there were two unconverted lads present. The preacher decided to change his talk, and preached on Jn.3:16. I don’t think I had ever heard Jn.3:16 before (I never read the Bible). From the moment he started speaking I listened intently. Two things began to puzzle and overwhelm me: First, why would God love [a sinner like me]? I didn’t love him. Second, why would God sacrifice his own Son for a sinner like me? It all seemed too amazing – I never [thought] for a moment he wasn’t speaking the truth. When the talk was over, I decided (as a polite young man!) to thank the speaker. He saw that I had been moved…by the message and he asked if I would like to speak with him for a few minutes. He very simply explained the gospel to me and I knew that I wanted and needed Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. I knew very little, except that I was a judgment-deserving sinner and Jesus was a Saviour. I prayed that God would forgive me for Jesus’ sake and knew from that moment on that I was “different” ([only] later I would understand “a new creation” in Christ). Everything changed for me that day in November 1966. Slowly, but surely, the old began to pass away and the new began to take root.”

How many accounts of boys and girls coming to faith in Christ resemble that one! The number is beyond counting. And all we can say, apart from praise be to God for his sovereign grace, is thank God for Albert! Where would the church in New Milns and the church in Cambridge, England be; where would countless people whose lives Ian has blessed be were it not for Albert, the un-athletic Glaswegian band player. His witness – he did hold out the gospel to Ian though not successfully at the time – wasn’t the key; it was rather his life. He shone in the darkness in a way that Ian could see even though he didn’t understand. Had Paul used a different metaphor, we might say that Ian – all unawares – detected the scent of Christ on this fellow. And it was that that made him willing not to laugh at the suggestion of going to the meeting of an afternoon Bible class, but to go. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Look around you this morning. Take note of the people sitting here: your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ordinary people; very ordinary people in almost every way. Shine like stars? These? Well, you would have had the same doubtful thought about Albert, I’ll guarantee you.

Then look at yourself, with all you know about your own hard heart and evil thoughts and unkind and ungenerous words and deeds; with all you know about how far, far short you fall of the example of Jesus Christ and the Law of God. Is Paul talking about you? Could he possibly be talking about you? I guarantee you that Albert would think about himself precisely as you do about yourself. But he shone like a star in the very way Paul said Christians would; he was the light of the world in the very way Jesus said his followers were and would be. And you will be as well!

And it has been the story of the church from the very beginning: very ordinary followers of Christ shining as stars in the universe. With all their sins they reflected the light of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Their cheerful and loving unity, their concern for others, their purity – imperfect as it was – could not be helped but noticed by the denizens of a world as dark as this one.

Of the early Christians, the pagan writer Lucian, no friend of Christianity himself, nevertheless wrote,

“It is incredible to see the ardor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put it into their heads that they are all brethren.”

And they didn’t just help one another. Julian the Apostate, who in the 4th century, wanted to undo his uncle Constantine’s fateful recognition of Christianity and restore the empire to its original paganism, instructed his lieutenants to establish pagan institutions of charity in every town because, he said,

“it is a shame that the [pagans] should be left without support for their own, while the Christians nourish not only their own but even our own poor.”

They were pure in a world besotted with evil desire. They lived as brothers and sisters, unified across all the dividing lines of a terribly fractured society. They were generous to a fault in a selfish and stingy world. They were lovers of others – even of the dregs of society – in a world where everyone looked out for himself. Christian marriage was sacred in a way marriage was generally not in that world, even Christian marriage between slaves, which the Romans didn’t even regard as legal marriages. They were joyful in a world that was heavy and dark much of the time for most people, and, in particular, they were cheerful and fearless in the prospect of death, which that world was not and could not be. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, they shone like stars and they were noticed and their faith soon covered the world. No one had any particular difficulty picking out the Christians – for all their imperfections and failures – they were different and they were better in the ways all people long to be better. Surely they had to be, for Christ had come into their lives. They were different; so different, so distinctive that they came to be called “the third race,” not Roman, not Jew, a new kind of person altogether.

They were in every way as ordinary as we are, as you are. But they worked hard to live the life Christ had given to them and to answer the summons he had issued them. They worked at not grumbling or arguing, at being pure, and at the other parts of a life that is worthy of the gospel of Christ, and in a world as dark as theirs was they stuck out; they shone like stars; they couldn’t help it. And the same will, must be true of you.

Many years ago I spoke over a weekend to a group of Scottish high school students. In the course of the weekend there was given opportunity for students to give testimonies and one girl told of how she had moved from the south of England to Scotland and had come to school the first day, a timid Christian, wondering if there might be other Christians in the place. At one point during that first day she fell to talking with another girl and this girl made some remark which prompted the English girl to ask: “Oh, are you a Christian?” The girl replied, “Oh, no; I’m not a Christian; but my sister is. I’ll introduce you.”

There is Paul’s exhortation in a nutshell. And you young people listen closely. Live so that if anyone goes searching among our unbelieving friends or neighbors to find a Christian, he or she will invariably be pointed to you.

Shine on, brothers and sisters; shine on!