I like to break up my devotional readings by paragraphs. I try and assign a paragraph each day to read, study and meditate on. A paragraph can be as short as one verse and other times it can cover as many as 10 verses or more. I do this so that I can follow the specific argument of the author and keep the information manageable, which allows me to meditate on a thought or two throughout the day.
Though this method has been beneficial to me, one problem with this approach is that there are times when I lose the connection from one paragraph to the next. On occasion, I read a paragraph and try to understand it in a “vacuum” and I loose the benefit of the overall argument the author is making throughout the book or that he is adding to from the paragraph previous to the one I am reading that day.
This week, I was reminded of the importance of “looking back” at the previous passage as I was preparing to preach on Philippians 2:12-18 for my Sunday school class. In this passage, Paul commanded his readers to practically apply (in their daily lives) what Christ had done in them through His work on the cross. Paul shared that there is an evangelistic responsibility (“lights in the world”) that believers have; and their character and conduct provide a venue for them to communicate the gospel message. Paul concluded the section by using his example as a reminder that this “working out of salvation” would also manifest itself in the sacrificial ministry to fellow believers’ for their spiritual advancement.
Taken on its own, this passage is a very “imperative heavy” section of Scripture: “work out your salvation,” “do all things without grumbling or disputing,” & “hold fast the word of life.” It can seem daunting as Paul is requiring believers to be obedient, “blameless and innocent”, & “above reproach.” But Paul did not intend for it to be taken on its own. He began verse 12 with the 2 words in the NASB; “So then” (one word in Greek). Paul wanted the imperatives of verse 12-18 to be viewed in light of the indicatives of verses 5-11. He wanted his readers to connect the way one lives as a believer to who Christ was and what Christ did.
I believe that one of the reasons we struggle in our Christian disciplines is that we don’t meditate on just who Christ is and what Christ has done. We don’t meditate on the work and worth of Christ. Philippians 2:5-9 is one of the greatest Christological passages of Scripture as it presents what Christ did for mankind and how God exalted His name above every name and how His preeminence will be seen in eternity future. When believers are gripped by the person and work of Christ, when they understand exactly what He has done for them, there is a response of obedience, there is a response of evangelism and sacrifice that is very different from an obedience that is self contrived. The author of Hebrews echoes this same idea in Hebrews 12:1-2:
“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes of Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
By remembering the text preceding the commandments of Philippians 2:12-18, the believer is motivated to respond through the good works he is called to do by remembering the great demonstration of Christ’s sacrifice and the eternal position that God exalted him to. Our call to obey is directly linked to the One who is “above every name.” Our call to proclaim the name of Christ is directly linked to the One who “God highly exalted.” Our call to sacrifice is linked to the one who “emptied Himself” for our spiritual well-being.
When we struggle with living a life of righteousness, instead of trying harder, Paul is directing us to meditate on the truths of Christ, on who He is and what He has done. As we fully come to grips with His worth, we will respond in worship through a righteous lifestyle. So glad I remembered what my pastor used to say when I was a child: “When there is a ‘wherefore’ or a ‘therefore,’ always ask what is it there for?”