Do everything without grumbling and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights amidst a crooked and perverse generation. Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless” (Phil 2:14-16).
I have the opportunity to minister full time to teenagers. One of the toughest challenges I face is inspiring students to “be good” and live morally upright lives without sounding like another parent or teacher figure lecturing them on how they ought to “be good” and live morally upright lives. Confused? Let me explain.
The church can too easily morph into merely a Good Boys & Girls Club teaching social etiquette and personal morality. Don’t get me wrong: I love good samaritans and responsible citizenship as much as the next person. I fully support Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, helping little old ladies across the street, raking lawns for the elderly and so on. Yet, the purpose for which the Jesus movement (i.e., the church) exists goes far beyond merely raising up good boys and girls and producing better citizens.
Try telling a room full of teens that God wants them to “be good” and you’ll be yawned out of the room. Being “good for goodness sake” makes a cute Christmas jingle but just isn’t the most enticing cause to give one’s life to. Now tell the same room of teensagers God wants them to spearhead a revolution of radical love and goodness that is destined to change the entire world, and you might get their attention — at least for a moment.
Paul is in the business of forming revolutionary communities of Jesus-followers all across the Roman Empire. In this passage, he challenges the believers in Philippi to “live clean, innocent lives” not in order to win a citizenship award, but to become a”contrast society” that reveals the perversity and corruption of the world and puts God’s beauty on display.
Paul thrusts us back into the ancient narrative of the wilderness wanderings of Moses and the early Israelites in these verses. Paul is tapping into the most foundational moment of God’s dealings with his chosen people — the exodus from Egyptian bondage to be God’s holy people set apart for the special purpose of shining the light of God’s blessings to the entire world (cf. Gen 12).
Paul is reminding God’s renewed people in Christ — i.e., the church — of this ancient corporate vocation and warning them not to repeat the folly of their ancestors who immediately began “grumbling” against Moses and God in the desert after recently being miraculously delivered by the hand of God (cf. Ex 16; Num 14; 16–17). As Paul says elsewhere, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).We who have been delivered from the bondage of sin by the sacrifice of Christ are called to be God’s holy, set part people in our own “crooked and perverse generation” as we imitate Christ’s example (cf. Phil 2:1-11) and thereby “shine like bright stars” (v. 15).
The problem with the church today is not that we aren’t well behaved enough. Some of us are too well-behaved. We are too nice. Too polite. We never create a stir and avoid drawing any attention to ourselves. The problem is that we have lost our missional edge and peculiar identity that looks strikingly different than the rest of the world. We have traded our revolutionary calling to shine in the darkness for a more socially respectable, politically correct, civil institutional role where we blend quietly into the rest of society.
How then do we recapture our true calling to shine like stars in a corrupt society?
We must “hold firmly to the word of life” (v. 16) by imitating the one who is the Word of life himself, Jesus Christ (again cf. Phil 2:1-11). Jesus was meek and mild, but never passive, innocuous or irrelevant. Make no mistake: He quietly subverted an empire, reformed a religion, started a revolution and was executed an enemy of the state. He was “the light of the world”; and though his light shone brighter than any other life in human history, his light was never rude, arrogant, or obnoxious. We are called to incarnate his Body by being his hands and feet serving and suffering for those who do not yet know him.
Let us therefore imitate Christ who said “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).