Philippians and Work

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:11b-12)

Introduction to Philippians

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Work requires effort. Whether we do business or drive trucks, raise children or write articles, sell shoes or care for the disabled and aged, our work requires personal effort. If we don’t get up in the morning and get going, our work won’t get done. What motivates us to get out of bed each morning? What keeps us going throughout the day? What energizes us so that we can do our work with faithfulness and even excellence?

There are a wide variety of answers to these questions. Some might point to economic necessity. “I get up and go to work because I need the money.” Other answers might refer to our interest in our work. “I work because I love my job.” Still other answers might be less inspiring. “What gets me up and keeps me going all day? Caffeine!”

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi provides a different sort of answer to the question of where we find strength to do our work. Paul says that our work is not the result of our own effort, but that God’s work in us is what gives us our energy. What we do in life, including on the job, is an expression of God’s saving work in Christ. Moreover, we find the strength for this effort by the power of God within us. Christ’s work is to serve people (Mark 10:35), and God empowers us to serve alongside him.

Almost all scholars agree that the Apostle Paul wrote the letter we know as Philippians sometime between AD 54 and 62.[6] There is no una­nimity about the place from which Paul wrote, though we know it was written during one of his several imprisonments (Phil. 1:7).[7] It is clear that Paul wrote this personal letter to the church in Philippi, a community he planted during an earlier visit there (Phil. 1:5; Acts 16:11–40). He wrote in order to strengthen his relationship with the Philippian church, to up­date them on his personal situation, to thank them for their support of his ministry, to equip them to confront threats to their faith, to help them get along better, and, in general, to assist them in living out their faith.

Philippians uses the word work (ergon and cognates) several times (Phil. 1:6; 2:12–13, 30; 4:3). Paul uses it to describe God’s work of salva­tion and the human tasks that flow from God’s saving work. He doesn’t directly address issues in the secular workplace, but what he says about work has important applications there.

Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, rev. and exp. by Ralph P. Martin, in vol. 43 of the Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), xxvii–xxix, xxxix–l.

See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., “4.3. Place and Date” of “Philippians, Letter to the,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

God’s Work in Us (Philippians 1:1–26)

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Positive Gratitude: Philippians 1 (Click Here to Read)

This sermon from The High Calling discusses how a positive attitude at work begins with gratitude, as we remember God’s good gifts in the past and look forward to what he’ll do in the future. Gratitude changes our feelings about our work, helping us receive God’s peace and perspective. It enables us to see our challenges with fresh vision and to communicate with hopefulness to our colleagues.

In the context of his opening prayer for the Philippians (Phil. 1:3–11), Paul shares his conviction of God’s work in and among the Philippian believers. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). The “work” Paul refers to is the work of new birth in Christ, which leads to salvation. Paul himself had a hand in that work by preaching the gospel to them. He continues that work as their teacher and apostle, and he says it is “fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22). Yet the underlying worker is not Paul but God, for God is “the one who began a good work among you” (Phil. 1:6). “This is God’s doing” (Phil. 1:28).

The NRSV speaks of God’s work “among you,” while most English translations speak of God’s work “in you.” Both are apropos, and the Greek phrase en humin can be rendered either way. God’s good work begins in individual lives. Yet it is to be lived out among believers in their fellowship together. The main point of verse 6 is not to restrict God’s work either to individuals or the community as a whole, but rather to underscore the fact that all of their work is God’s work. Moreover, this work isn’t completed when individuals “get saved” or when churches are planted. God continues working in and among us until his work is complete, which happens “by the day of Jesus Christ.” Only when Christ returns will God’s work be finished.

Paul’s job is evangelist and apostle, and there are marks of success and ambition in his profession, as in any other. How many converts you win, how much funding you raise, how many people praise you as their spiritual mentor, how your numbers compare to other evangelists—these can be points of pride and ambition. Paul admits that these motivations exist in his profession, but he insists that the only proper motivation is love (Phil. 1:15–16). The implication is that this is true in every other profession as well. We are all tempted to work for the marks of success—including recognition, security, and money—which can lead to “selfish ambition” (eritieias, perhaps more precisely translated as “un­fair self-promotion”).[8] They are not entirely bad, for they often come as we accomplish the legitimate purposes of our jobs (Phil. 1:18). Getting the work done is important, even if our motivation is not perfect. Yet in the long run (Phil. 3:7–14), motivation is even more important and the only Christ-like motivation is love.

James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fel­lowship, 1995), G2052.

Do Your Work in a Worthy Manner (Philippians 1:27–2:11)

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Since our work is actually God’s work in us, our work should be worthy, as God’s work is. But apparently we have the ability to hinder God’s work in us, for Paul exhorts, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). His topic is life in general, and there is no reason to believe he means to exclude work from this exhortation. He gives three particular commands:

  1. “Be of the same mind” (Phil. 2:2).
  2. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
  3. “Look not to your own interests, but the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).

Again, we can work according to these commands only because our work is actually God’s work in us, but this time he says it in a beautiful passage often called the “Hymn of Christ” (Phil. 2:6–11). Jesus, he says, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emp­tied himself taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedi­ent to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8–9). There­fore God’s work in us—specifically Christ’s work in us—is always done humbly with others, for the benefit of others, even if it requires sacrifice.

“Be of the Same Mind” (Philippians 2:2)

The first of the three commands, “Be of the same mind,” is given to Christians as a body. We shouldn’t expect it to apply in the secular work­place. In fact, we don’t always want to have the same mind as everyone around us at work (Rom. 12:2). But in many workplaces, there is more than one Christian. We should strive to have the same mind as other Christians where we work. Sadly, this can be very difficult. In church, we segregate ourselves into communities in which we generally agree about biblical, theological, moral, spiritual, and even cultural matters. At work we don’t have that luxury. We may share the workplace with other Christians with whom we disagree about such matters. It may even be hard to recognize others who claim to be Christians as Christians, ac­cording to our judgments.

This is a scandalous impediment to both our witness as Christians and our effectiveness as co-workers. What do our non-Christian colleagues think of our Lord—and us—if we get along worse with each other than with nonbelievers? At the very least, we ought to try to identify other Christians in our workplaces and learn about their beliefs and practices. We may not agree, even about matters of great importance, yet it is a far better witness to show mutual respect than to treat others who call themselves Christians with contempt or bickering. If nothing else, we should set aside our differences enough to do excellent work together, if we really believe that our work truly matters to God.

Having the same mind as Christ means “having the same love” as Christ (Phil. 2:2). Christ loved us to the point of death (Phil. 2:8), and we are to have the same love he had (Phil. 2:5). This gives us something in common not only with other believers but also with nonbelievers in our workplaces: we love them! Everyone at work can agree with us that we should do work that benefits them. If a Christian says, “My job is to serve you,” who would disagree with that?

“Do Nothing from Selfish Ambition or Conceit” (Philippians 2:3)

Critical Choices - A Case Study from Reell Manufacturing

Jim Grubs is deeply convinced faith values and principles are a rich resource available to use in making our choices or decision more effective than they might otherwise be. He writes in this case study: "Let me illustrate with a story from the company, Reell, with which I worked."

"Toward the end of 2000, as many will remember, our economy, particularly the technical sector, took a 'nosedive'. Reell, being a part of that sector, lost close to 35% of its revenue without any promise of recovery. Carly Fiorina, then CEO of HP, said "Who turned out the lights?" By February 2001, we had exhausted all the cost-cutting strategies possible - except wages, but were still losing money. So, we had to make a decision of whether we should lay off about 20% of our workforce (40+ coworkers) or make some fairly significant compensation reductions - averaging 12-15%. The corporate leadership (about eight people) was queried as to their recommendations. Many felt we needed to reduce the workforce. If we didn't do that we would lose our best people. And besides, this was an excellent opportunity to let go those who were considered "dead wood" - very efficient."

"Of the other "mind" were those who believed we should take the wage cut approach. The rationale which was applied here hearkened back to a part of our purpose statement "Reell is a team united in the operation of a business based on the practical application of spiritual values...". Thus, we considered some JudeoChristian principles to give us perspective. The first being to reduce wages allowed a coworker to chose whether to stay or leave ("freedom of choice" - a basic principle found in Genesis 1). Secondly, the sharing of resources (money in this instance) was deeply ingrained in our culture. Working in teams included sharing everything from tools, to ideas, to time, to energy, to wisdom, etc. Sharing is a hallmark of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thirdly, the Christian conviction of 'emptying' ourselves for the sake of others (Phil 2:3-8), a premise for the highest form of love, becomes the glue for holding a corporate or any kind of community together."

"Reell chose this approach and although there was no guarantee of success, in this case, it did provide a positive outcome in which morale was significantly increased; talent attrition minimal (one coworker left); commitment to service, quality and profit was deepened and trust that the leadership cared went 'through the roof'. It was risky, but it seemed to touch deeply the hearts and minds of literally hundreds of coworkers. Yes, the core principles and values of our faith can be effective for work communities!"

Regarding others as better than ourselves is the mind-set of those who have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:3). Our humility is meant to be of­fered to all the people around us, and not just to Christians. For Jesus’ death on the cross—the ultimate act of humility—was for sinners and not for the righteous (Luke 5:32; Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:15).

Workplaces offer unlimited opportunities for humble service. You can be generous in giving credit to others for success and stingy in pass­ing out blame for failure. You can listen to what someone else is saying instead of thinking ahead to your reply. You can try another person’s idea instead of insisting on your own way. You can give up your envy at another person’s success or promotion or higher salary, or, failing that, you can take your envy to God in prayer instead of to your buddies at lunch.

Conversely, workplaces offer unlimited opportunities for selfish ambition. As we have seen, ambition—even competition—is not neces­sarily bad (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 9:24; 1 Tim. 2:5), but unfairly advanc­ing your own agenda is. It forces you to adopt an inaccurate, inflated assessment of yourself (“conceit”), which puts you into an ever more remote fantasyland where you can be effective neither in work nor in faith. There are two antidotes. First, make sure your success depends on and contributes to others’ success. This generally means operating in genuine teamwork with others in your workplace. Second, continu­ally seek accurate feedback about yourself and your performance. You may find that your performance is actually excellent, but if you learn that from accurate sources, it is not conceit. The simple act of accepting feedback from others is a form of humility, since you subordinate your self-image to their image of you. Needless to say, this is helpful only if you find accurate sources of feedback. Submitting your self-image to people who would abuse or delude you is not true humility. Even as he submitted his body to abuse on the cross, Jesus maintained an accurate assessment of himself (Luke 23:43).

“Look Not to Your Own Interests, But to the Interests of Others” (Philippians 2:4)

Of the three commands, this may be the hardest to reconcile with our roles in the workplace. We go to work—at least in part—in order to meet our needs. How then can it make sense to avoid looking to our own interests? Paul does not say. But we should remember that he is speaking to a community of people, to whom he says, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Perhaps he expects that if everyone looks not to their individual needs, but to the needs of the whole community, then everyone’s needs will be met. This is consistent with the body analogy Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere. The eye does not meet its need for transportation but relies on the foot for that. So each organ acts for the good of the body, yet finds its own needs met.

Under ideal circumstances, this might work for a close-knit group, perhaps a church of equally highly committed members. But is it meant to apply to the nonchurch workplace? Does Paul mean to tell us to look to the interests of our co-workers, customers, bosses, subordinates, sup­pliers, and myriad others around us, instead of our own interests? Again, we must turn to Philippians 2:8, where Paul depicts Jesus on the cross as our model, looking to the interests of sinners instead of his own. He lived out this principle in the world at large, not the church, and so must we. And Paul is clear that the consequences for us include suffering and loss, maybe even death. “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” There is no natural reading of Philip­pians 2 that lets us off the hook of looking to the interests of others at work instead to our own.

For an application of this passage, see "Price to Turn" at Country Supply Study Guide by clicking here.

Following Christ as Ordinary Christians (Philippians 2:19–3:21)

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In fact, Philippians gives us three examples—Paul, Epaphroditus, and Timothy—to show us how all Christians are meant to follow Christ’s model. “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us,” Paul tells us (Phil. 3:17). He depicts each of these examples in a framework based on the “Hymn of Jesus” in chapter 2.

Person
Sent to a difficult place
In obedience/ slavery
Taking grave risks
For the benefit of others
Jesus
Found in human form (2:7)
Taking the form of a slave (2:7)
Obedient to the point of death (2:8)
Emptied himself (2:7)
Paul
Live in the flesh (1:22)
Servant of Jesus Christ (1:1)
Imprisonment (1:7) Becoming like Christ in death (3:10)
For your progress and joy (1:25)
Timothy
Send Timothy to you soon (2:19)
Like a son with a father (2:22)
(Not specified in Philippians, but see Rom. 6:21)
Will be genuinely concerned for your welfare (2:20) 
Epaphroditus
Send you Epaphroditus (2:25)
Your messenger (2:25)
Came close to death (2:30)
To minister to my need (2:25)

The message is clear. We are called to do as Jesus did. We cannot hide behind the excuse that Jesus is the only Son of God, who serves others so we won’t have to. Nor are Paul, Epaphroditus, and Timothy supermen whose exploits we can’t hope to duplicate. Instead, as we go to work we are to put ourselves into the same framework of sending, obedience, risk, and service to others:

Person
Sent to a difficult place
In obedience/ slavery
Taking grave risks
For the benefit of others
Workplace Christians
Go to non-Christian workplaces
Work under the authority of others
Risk career limitation for our motivation to love as Christ loves
Are called by God to put others' interests ahead of our own

Are we allowed to temper the command to serve others instead of ourselves with a little common sense? Could we, say, look first to the interests of others whom we can trust? Could we look to the interests of others in addition to our own interests? Is it okay to work for the com­mon good in situations where we can expect to benefit proportionally, but look out for ourselves when the system is stacked against us? Paul doesn’t say.

What should we do if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to live quite so daringly? Paul says only this, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Only by constant prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving to God can we get through the difficult decisions and demanding actions required to look to the interests of others instead of our own. This is not meant as abstract theology but as practical advice for daily life and work.

Everyday Applications (Philippians 4:1–23)

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Paul describes three everyday situations that have direct relevance for the workplace.

Resolving Conflict (Philippians 4:2–9)

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Paul asks the Philippians to help two women among them, Euodia and Syntyche, come to peace with each other (Phil. 4:2–9). Although our instinctive reflex is to suppress and deny conflict, Paul lovingly brings it into the open where it can be resolved. The women’s conflict is not specified, but they are both believers who Paul says “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). Conflict occurs even between the most faithful Christians, as we all know. Stop nurturing resentment, he tells them, and think about what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, com­mendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in the other person (Phil. 4:8). “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) seems to begin with appreciating the good points of those around us, even (or especially) when we are in conflict with them. After all, they are people for whom Christ died. We should also look carefully at ourselves and find God’s reserves of gentleness, prayer, supplication, thanksgiving, and letting go of worry (Phil. 4:6) inside ourselves.

The application to today’s workplace is clear, though seldom easy. When our urge is to ignore and hide conflict with others at work, we must instead acknowledge and talk (not gossip) about it. When we would rather keep it to ourselves, we should ask people of wisdom for help—in humility, not in hopes of gaining an upper hand. When we would rather build a case against our rivals, we should instead build a case for them, at least doing them the justice of acknowledging whatever their good points are. And when we think we don’t have the energy to engage the other person, but would rather just write off the relationship, we must let God’s power and patience substitute for our own. In this we seek to imitate our Lord, who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7) of personal agendas and so received the power of God (Phil. 2:9) to live out God’s will in the world. If we do these things, then our conflict can be resolved in terms of what the true issues are, rather than our projections, fears, and resent­ments. Usually this leads to a restored working relationship and a kind of mutual respect, if not friendship. Even in the unusual cases where no reconciliation is possible, we can expect a surprising “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). It is God’s sign that even a broken relationship is not beyond the hope of God’s goodness.

Supporting Each Other in Work (Philippians 4:10–11, 15–16)

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Paul thanks the Philippians for their support for him, both personal (Phil. 1:30) and financial (Phil. 4:10–11, 15–16). Throughout the New Testament, we see Paul always striving to work in partnership with other Christians, including Barnabas (Acts 13:2), Silas (Acts 15:40), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), and Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3). His letters typically end with greetings to people with whom he has worked closely, and are often from Paul and a co-worker, as Philippians is from Paul and Timothy (Phil. 1:1). In this he is following his own advice of imitating Jesus, who did almost everything in partnership with his disciples and others.

As we noted in Philippians 2, Christians in the secular workplace don’t always have the luxury of working alongside believers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t support one another. We could gather with others in our professions or institutions to share mutual support in the specific challenges and opportunities we face in our jobs. The “Mom-to-Mom” program[9] is a practical example of mutual support in the workplace. Mothers gather weekly to learn, share ideas, and support each other in the job of parenting young children. Ideally, all Christians would have that kind of support for their work. In the absence of a formal program, we could talk about our work in our usual Christian communities, in­cluding worship and sermons, Bible studies, small groups, church re­treats, classes, and the rest. But how often do we? Paul went to great lengths to build community with the others in his calling, even employ­ing messengers to make long sea voyages (Phil. 2:19, 25) to share ideas, news, fellowship, and resources.

Handling Poverty and Plenty (Philippians 4:12–13, 18)

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Finally, Paul discusses how to handle both poverty and plenty. This has direct workplace relevance because work makes the difference be­tween poverty and plenty for us, or at least for those of us who are paid for our work. Again, Paul’s advice is simple, yet hard to follow. Don’t idolize your work in expectation that it will always provide plenty for you. Instead, do your work because of the benefit it brings to others, and learn to be content with however much or little it provides for you. Tough advice indeed. Some professions—teachers, health workers, customer service people, and parents, to name a few—may be used to working overtime without extra pay to help people in need. Others expect to be amply rewarded for the service they perform. Imagine a senior executive or investment banker working without a contract or bonus target saying, 

“I take care of the customers, employees, and shareholders, and am happy to receive whatever they choose to give me at the end of the year.” It’s not common, but a few people do it. Paul says simply this:

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, or having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. . . . I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied. (Phil. 4:12–13, 18)

The point is not how much or how little we are paid—within reason— but whether we are motivated by the benefit our work does for others or only for our self-interest. Yet that motivation itself should move us to resist institutions, practices, and systems that result in extremes of either too much plenty or too much poverty.

Conclusion to Philippians

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Though Paul does not address the workplace distinctly in Philip­pians, his vision of God’s work in us lays a foundation for our consid­erations of faith and work. Our jobs provide a major context in which we are to live out the good work God has begun in us. We are to seek the same mind as other Christians in our places of life and work. We are to act as though others are better than ourselves. We are to look to the interests of others instead of our own. Without directly addressing work, Paul seems to demand the impossible from us in the workplace! But what we do in the workplace is not just our effort—it is God’s work in and through us. Because God’s power is unlimited, Paul can say boldly, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).