In Phil 2:12, Paul said believers ought to “work out” their salvation in fear and trembling. I suggested in a previous post that Paul’s point in this very difficult verse is something like “cultivate your salvation in order to bear fruit on the Day of Christ.” God saves by grace through faith, adopts us into his family, and then creates an environment for his children so they are able to bear the kind of fruit that pleases their Father in heaven.
This work or fruit is for God’s “good pleasure,” not ours. The noun (εὐδοκία) has the sense of being pleased with someone, perhaps as a parent is pleased with their child’s successes. I have attended several piano recitals and honestly, no one plays as well as my kid. All the others are really bad. Since I am a typical parent, I am “well pleased” when my child plays, whether she is the best or not!
If the believer is to “work out their salvation in fear and trembling” and whatever work they do is for God’s pleasure (not theirs), does this mean God is going to command us to do things that are unpleasant to us? Something dangerous? Something harmful? Too many Christians dread service to God because they think God is out to torture them with some horrid and embarrassing task.
In the context, Paul has just finished describing the humility of Jesus as he was obedient even to death on the cross. In verse 17, Paul himself is obedient even to the point of imprisonment and death. So yes, God might very well expect you to be obedient to him in a dangerous situation. But looking ahead to two more examples in the letter, Timothy and Epaphroditus are both examples of humble service and obedience to God’s will. Both were willing to do what was required to fulfill their calling.
In the context of first-century Philippi, the fact that the believers are separate from the world may mean they are facing opposition. Perhaps they are suspected of disloyalty, for not being good being good members of the Empire, or at the very least, they are really quite weird! Different was dangerous in the Roman world, so to serve a God that did not have a temple or priesthood, to reject the gods of one’s father or the gods of the community, was to put yourself in danger!
Obedience to God does not necessarily mean he is going to send you to die in Africa. Humble service is the way the child of God ought to live their lives all of the time. That might mean living a life that challenges the assumptions of a prevailing culture, but it usually means living a life dedicated to God regardless of the situation (Phil 4:10-13 will make this even more clear). In fact, it in the comfortable Western church, it is easy to say you are willing to be a martyr since it is highly unlikely you will ever have to give your life for Christ.
Honestly, which is harder, saying you are willing to give your life in the service of the Gospel, or being kind to your neighbor? Treating someone with a significantly sinful lifestyle with respect and love? Humbling serving someone who is completely undeserving of respect and completely unaware of your sacrifice on their behalf?