The Lord's Day Morning
March 3, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Do What Israel Didn't Do”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
. If you have your bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians chapter 2, as we continue to make our way through this great letter of the apostle Paul. Paul, in this passage – and we're going to be looking at verses 14 and 15 today – is reiterating an exhortation that he has been making since Philippians chapter 1, verse 27. He is exhorting us to obedience in the Christian life. Now he relates this to our purpose in life in this passage. And the Bible does that regularly. The Bible explains to us what our purpose is in life, and it does it in many different striking ways in order to impress upon us that God has a purpose for us in this world. That is a very important thing in this day and time, because all around us people are desperately searching for purpose in life, and very often they are looking for it in unhelpful places. The best seller of a few years ago, The Purpose Driven Life, I think testifies to the fact that people are looking for purpose out there. But the fact that people so often look in unhelpful places also lets us know the problem of the idol of the heart.
Did you hear what we just read in Psalm 135? That what the idol that you make, you become like. And when you search for purpose in your own way, and you are at the center of the universe, you’ll end up creating a purpose with all of your own faults and all of your own self pre-occupation and self centeredness. And in the end, it will destroy you.
It has been very interesting – if you have been listening to the radio over the last few weeks, you will know that Oprah Winfrey is preparing for a very big event tomorrow night. She hopes to have the largest community of learners online in the history of the world gathered to hear Eckhart Tolle talk about his new book, A New Earth. Now I can tell you what they’re going to learn together online. They’re going to learn that they are the center of the universe; that God is in them; and that they key to having life and purpose is learning that it's all about you. Now that's a terrible, terrible mistake. It's the exact opposite. It's a mirror opposite image of the truth, and yet what will be thousands and thousands and perhaps tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people testify to when they gather online for that session with Oprah tomorrow night? They will testify that they are searching for purpose.
One of the glorious things about the Bible is the Bible tells us what our purpose is, and it is wrapped up in the glory of God, and it is only experienced by faith in Jesus Christ. Well, this is one of those passages that we're about to read, Philippians chapter 2, verses 14 and 15, where God explains what your purpose in life is.
Paul, to summarize, here says that you are on earth to do as a congregation what Israel didn't do. It's mind blowing, isn't it? You are on earth to do as a congregation what Israel didn't do. Now perhaps you've already scanned this verse, and you’re already scratching your head and saying, “Ligon, where in the world do you get that from?” Well, hold on. We’ll get there. Let's look to God in prayer, then we’ll read His word and hear it proclaimed. Pray with me.
Heavenly father, we thank You for Your word. We ask that you would bless it to our hearts for it is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. We would be lost without it. But we also need Your Holy Spirit, not only to understand it, but to embrace it and to live it, for our hearts are fickle, and our mind is a factory of idols. So we pray that the Spirit would clear our minds of unbelief and of false belief and would open our eyes and hearts to see the truth and then to believe it and by Your grace to live it. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God from Philippians 2:14, 15. This is God's word:
“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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
God wants us to understand our purpose in life. That's clear, because He tells us what our purpose in life is in so many different, striking ways repeatedly in the Bible. For instance, if we were at the end of 1 Corinthians, chapter 10, Paul would be describing for us what our purpose in life is by saying, “Whether you’re eating or drinking, no matter what you’re doing, do all for the glory of God.” In that passage Paul is telling you that God has put you in this world for His glory and that your purpose in life is to glorify Him in all that you are and do. And in that glorifying of Him in all that you are and do, to enjoy Him both now and forevermore. In other words, the apostle Paul is saying that when you realize that God is at the center of all things and that He is the first and the greatest and the best and that you are not at the center of all things and that all glory belongs to Him, then and only then do you experience the joy that God created you to experience. He is explaining your purpose in life in that passage.
Well, this is such a passage. But here Paul is saying that your purpose in life is to congregationally – as a congregation, together as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ gathered into one local church, living and ministering together – you are to do congregationally what Israel failed to do. Paul is talking in this whole passage about our obedience. And here he is talking about how our obedience and our sanctification play into God's great purpose for our lives. Paul is telling us that God wants us to obey from the heart in the community, and in doing so to experience a fullness of joy.
So I want you to see three things from this passage before us today.
I. Christians are not to grumble and sinfully question.
The first thing that Paul says – and you’ll see it in verse 14 – is that we are not to grumble and sinfully question. Now allow your eyes to look back at verses 12 and 13. There he has asked us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure. And we said there that what Paul is getting at is that in our sanctification– in our change, in our becoming more like Jesus Christ, in our becoming mature in grace– we are to live out the salvation which God has given and we are to work out the sanctification which God is at work in us working on by his holy spirit in such a way that we pursue godliness. And in verses 14 and 15, he is specifying how he wants us to work out our sanctification– how he wants us to pursue godliness. In verse 14, he tells us first: don't grumble and sinfully question. You see the words, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.”
Now where does that language come from? Where does the language of “grumbling and complaining” or “grumbling or questioning.” Think of yourself as a good Jewish Christian sitting in Paul's congregation somewhere in Asia Minor in the first century and you hear the words, “grumbling and complaining.” What is the first thing that you are going to think about? Israel in the wilderness. For instance, take your Bibles and turn with me to Exodus, chapter 15 and 16. I want you to see just two short passages there. Exodus 15. Look at verses 23 and 24. The children of Israel are in the wilderness. God has brought them miraculously across the Red Sea on dry land. He has spared them from their enemies. He has liberated them from their bondage and slavery to Pharaoh. He has established them as a nation. They are wandering in the wilderness. They come to this place where the water was bitter. They name it Marah, because of the bitter waters, and then in verse 24, what do they do? “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” Now what did they do? They grumbled, and they questioned. They grumbled about the bitter water, and they questioned Moses and the elders, who were God's appointed spiritual representatives to them. They grumbled, and they questioned.
And then turn to the next chapter, Exodus 16, verses 2 and 3. This is what Moses says about the whole congregation: “The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” What did they do? They grumbled, and they questioned. Did you notice that that question really wasn't a question? It was more of a comment.
God is not saying that His people don't have the right to ask Him a question, but He is saying that sinful questioning is wrong. Questioning which disrespects the authority that God has established over them, which does not trust in God's kind and loving and beneficent sovereign providence over his people. After all, he brought them out of Egypt. He brought them across the red sea miraculously. Would He have done that to bring them into the wilderness to let them die? No, but they sinfully grumbled against God, and they questioned His appointed spiritual leaders.
And you see what Paul is saying to the Philippians: don't do that. Don't you do like Israel did. They grumbled against God, and they questioned their spiritual leaders, and it brought about what? Dissention in the congregation.
And you remember what he had been talking about in Philippians 2:1-4? Petty rivalries, squabbles in the congregation, divisions, broken relationships. And what's he saying to the Philippians? Don't do what Israel did. Don't grumble. Don't sinfully question.
He's really drawing out two things about the kind of obedience that he wants the Philippians to express that the children of Israel didn't. He's talking about obedience from the heart, and he's talking about obedience in the community. The children of Israel would have said, “Yes, we are God's people. We are the nation that God has chosen.” But their grumbling and their questioning showed what? That in their hearts, they were not submissive to God.
Have you ever seen the little cartoon of the boy who has been, with great effort, subdued by his teacher into sitting down when he has wanted to stand up. And over his little head is the bubble, and it says, “On the outside I'm sitting down, but on the inside I'm still standing up.” [laughter] That's what Israel is here. Oh, we're the people of God. But with their actions they are showing what? On the outside they may be the people of God, but on the inside they are still standing up. They are gritting their teeth. They don't want to do what God would have them to do.
Paul is addressing that today in Philippians 2:14. He's saying, don't do that. God wants you to obey Him. He wants you to embrace His commands. He wants you to pursue godliness from your heart– not grudgingly, merely outwardly, grumbling all the way. He wants you to obey from the heart, and He wants you to do it in the whole congregation– in your relationships with one another. He wants your obedience to be experienced and expressed in the community, unlike the children of Israel did in the wilderness, where some started grumbling, and what happened? It was like a contagion, and it spread to the point that in Exodus 16– isn't it sad that Moses can say, “The whole congregation grumbled.” And Paul is saying don't do that. Don't be like Israel.
II. Be the children of God.
But he doesn't stop there. He says, in verse 14, first, don't grumble and sinfully question, but second, in verse 15, he says be the children of God. Be the children of God. Look at his words. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that” (so that, in order that) “you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.”
Now, we've already said that if you are saved, you are the child of God. So what's up with Paul saying “be the child of God in your behavior”? Is he saying that somehow you make yourself to be the child of God by your good works? No. He's saying that those who are children of God show that they are children of God by the way that they live. He's saying that you show your adoption by your life. You show whose child you are by your behavior. You show who your father is by your obedience, by your deeds.
You remember Jesus once encountered a group of Jewish people who were opposing His teaching, and they said to Him, “We are of our father Abraham.” And you remember what Jesus said to them? “No you’re not. You’re of your father, the devil, because you do the deeds of your father, and you’re not doing the deeds of My heavenly Father, the God and father of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. You are doing the deeds of the devil.”
The apostle Paul is saying to these Philippians: be the children of God. Show whose children you are. Show whose father is yours by the way that you live.
III. Shine as lights in the world.
And then in verse 15, he says a third thing. Shine as lights in the world. “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation among whom you shine as lights in the world.” In other words, Paul is saying your life is to be a witness to the world. But not just your life individually. Your life together– the way that you relate to one another, the way that you are mutually accountable, the way that you express and experience the grace of God in your lives together as a congregation–is a witness to the world.
Now what is absolutely stunning here is that Paul is saying to the Philippians that you are to do and be what Israel was supposed to do and be but wasn't. Paul is saying, Christians, in your congregation, do what Israel didn't do. He started out by saying don't do what Israel did (verse 14), but in verse 15 he's saying do what Israel didn't do. They were supposed to be the children of God, who by their light, let shine to the nations the glory of God so that they became a blessing to the nations and so that the nations glorified God. But they didn't. And you know what?
The apostle Paul in this verse is drawing on Deuteronomy 32:5. Would you turn with me there. It's the last sermon of Moses–his final words to the wilderness generation. Remember Israel is getting ready to go into the promised land, and Moses preaches one last sermon, and that sermon is the book of Deuteronomy. It's a pretty long sermon. Don't worry I'm not going to recount it today. But in Deuteronomy 32:5, isn't it sad what he says about the wilderness generation. This is what he says, “They” (talking about the wilderness generation)– “they have dealt corruptly with Him;” (talking about God– the wilderness generation has dealt corruptly with God) “they are no longer His children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.”
Now, there is so much there, it is hard to know where to begin. First of all, where do you remember hearing that phrase, “crooked and twisted generation?” Who uses that phrase all the time in His teaching? Jesus, and He uses it to describe the unbelieving generation to which He was preaching.
Now in Deuteronomy 32 what Moses is saying is you were to be the children of God, and you were to witness to the unbelieving and perverse generation of the gentile Canaanites around you. But what did you do? In your actions, you showed that you weren't the children of God. In your actions, you became a perverse and twisted generation.
And then along comes the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:14-15, and what does he say? You be the children of God without blemish, and you be a light to the wicked and perverse generation in which you live.
You see what he's saying? He's saying do what Israel didn't do. That's your purpose in this world. Now that's awesome, and it's humbling. I mean, we're a big congregation. There are 3,000 of us, but Israel had 2 million people. And yet they failed to do what God had called them to do in the wilderness. And Paul is saying “Christian, you be and do as a congregation what Israel failed to be and do.” You be a light in the world. Show your sanctification in your living. Show your doctrine by your life. Let your sanctification, let your holiness, let your Christ-likeness, let your pursuit of godliness serve as a witness to unbelievers. Let your life together testify to the reality of gospel grace.
In fact, this verse, Philippians 2:15, sounds a lot like what Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, doesn't it? “Let your light shine before men so that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” The apostle Paul is saying, Christian, together, without grumbling, questioning– without petty rivalry and disrespect towards the spiritual leaders that I've given to you– do what Israel didn't do. Be the children of God. Be a light to the world.
Do you understand that God, in the Bible, tells us that His purpose is to one day sum up everything under the headship of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:10. And do you know what God's strategy to do that is? Okay, here it is: the church. The church is his strategy for doing that. He intends, by gathering together men and women, and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation into his family, his house, his church– to bring all things into subjection to Jesus Christ. But do you know what his strategy for us living out a witness to the world is? It's the local church. It's this congregation living in biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the Bible, living together in mutual love and accountability, living out his gospel. This is his plan for witness to the world. That's His plan a.
And let me let you in on a little secret– there isn't a plan b. That's it. His plan for bringing all things under the headship of Christ is you doing congregationally what Israel failed to do. And that means that the most important thing for the future course of world history that will happen this year will not happen in Washington, D.C. It will not happen in the state capitol or in the city hall. It will happen in our living with one another in our mutual growth and grace, in our joyfully pursuing godliness, and it will be used by God for a witness to a watching world for the salvation of sinners and for the glory of Christ. It's absolutely mind boggling. God has called us to do what Israel didn't do. And for that we need His grace; so let's pray.
Heavenly father, we are so tempted to copy the world. We are so tempted to want to be like the world. We want to do what pagans are doing. We want to think like pagans think. We want to live and act and talk in ways that we can be accepted by pagans. How hateful that is of us. When we do that we are being a curse to them. We’re not loving them like You want us to love them. You want us to love this perverse and twisted generation by not being like them. By not thinking like them, not acting like them, not wanting what they want, but pursuing an all together different goal– an all together different end– living with an all together different purpose. You want us to do what Israel didn't do–together. Lord, if You were not at work in us, we would despair. But because You are at work in us, we know that You will bring the work that You have begun to completion. Grant us then an energy for growing in grace. In Jesus' name. Amen.