Chapter 24: Presence and Absence

Philippians 2:12‑13  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 8
“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of (His) good pleasure.”
So, my beloved-ones, just-as you always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is the (One) working in you both the willing and the working for-the-sake of (His)-good-pleasure.
We have been gazing with adoration on our Lord’s pathway from the throne to the cross; and from the cross to the throne: and if we have taken in at all what that sight means, we will better understand the Queen of Sheba’s feelings when it is recorded “there was no more spirit in her,” (2 Chron. 9:44And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel; his cupbearers also, and their apparel; and his ascent by which he went up into the house of the Lord; there was no more spirit in her. (2 Chronicles 9:4)) as she gazed at the glories of Solomon: but One greater than Solomon is here.
But let us never forget that the Spirit of God has given us this wondrous passage of Scripture in order that we might have this mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus. And now in verse 12, the Apostle goes back to that very practical teaching with which this chapter began. He looks back to those happy times with the saints in Philippi, and how they “always obeyed.” But that was while he was with them, “in my presence,” as he puts it. The word is par-ousia, “being-alongside-of,” and I have tried in the note before this chapter to give some further details of this word. Now the Apostle is in prison in Rome, and how will the saints behave now that he is absent (apousia): no longer “alongside-of” them? Beautiful answer, “now much more in my absence” (vs. 12). In considering the word par-ousia, we have seen that it is generally reserved for the coming of our Lord: when we will be present with Him: prepared for this meaning by formerly coming to mean “the visit of a King.” I wonder, Beloved, if the Lord could say of us now: in His ap-ousia: His absence: if our obedience is “much more”? You know how it is with someone you dearly love; if absent, you will be even more careful to do that which you know would please them, than you would do were they present. So it was with the Philippian saints and the Apostle they loved so well. May it be so with us and our absent, rejected Lord!
The latter part of this 12th verse has long been a puzzle to many. In the new Roman Catholic “Knox Version” of the Bible, which in many places is excellent: M. Knox translates it: “You must work to earn your salvation, in anxious fear.”
And I sadly fear there are many who would agree with M. Knox. But that is not at all the meaning that the Spirit of God has for us. In the note at the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned two words in this verse on which a flood of light has been thrown by the old papers found in Egyptian rubbish heaps. One of these words is the word translated “work out,” in our verse. Dr. Moulton says of this word: it “is very common with reference to the ‘cultivation’ of allotments.” And if we use this meaning for the word, I think it makes our verse very clear.
It is more than fifty years since I worked on a farm, so I asked a dear farmer brother to help me out about “cultivating.” This is what he says: “I have much enjoyed the thoughts you brought out about Philippians 2:1212Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12), and I’m sure it is a verse that has been a puzzle to many, and has been perhaps used in a wrong way by those who think salvation is by works.”
“I believe the word cultivate means just what you said, to loosen the soil so the rain and air can get to the roots so the plant may grow strong and bear fruit. One of the main purposes in cultivating too is to get rid of the weeds, for if they are allowed to grow, the tender plant is robbed of its vigor and cannot bear much fruit.”
“Yes, I have followed the old horse drawn cultivator you speak of and sometimes the sun was pretty hot, and often it was dusty. Of course corn and soya beans were the main crops we cultivated, and we nearly always cultivate them three times during the season.”
“Father always said the first cultivation was the main one, when the plants were young and tender, to get rid of the weeds while they were young, for when they get well rooted it is almost impossible to get rid of them, unless by the hoe, which on big acreage is almost never done being impracticable; but the hoe is a tool for cultivation, and a good one too, as one can get close to the plants without harming them. In a crop like strawberries it is about the only tool one can use and very important, for weeds and grass will soon take the strawberries if they aren’t hoed.”
“It seems to me very interesting, and makes the passage much easier to understand, when you see that `work out’ means to cultivate. The more valuable the crop is, the more carefully the farmer will cultivate it. How carefully and diligently we should cultivate salvation.”
I think this letter makes the meaning of the verse wonderfully clear. How quickly the things of this world make the ground hard, so that the genial warmth of the love of God does not get down to our roots; and the refreshing rain (is it the Word of God, Isa. 55:10,1110For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: 11So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10‑11)?) runs off the hardened crust, and we get little or no good from it. Then, Beloved, we need to “cultivate our own salvation.” We need to get out the hoe and break up that crust, get down deep, too, perhaps; so the roots will feel the sunshine and the fresh air and the sweet showers.
And our brother spoke about the weeds, too. You know something about the weeds: those weeds of impure thoughts, of slothfulness, of bad-temper, and a thousand others. I think we find some of them listed in 1 Peter 2:1-21Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, 2As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: (1 Peter 2:1‑2): “Laying aside therefore all malice and all guile and hypocrisies and envyings and all evil speakings, as newborn babes desire earnestly the pure mental milk of the word, that by it ye may grow up to salvation.” (New Translation). I think this illustrates our picture well: there are the weeds, and when I was a boy and had long rows of corn and potatoes to hoe, (it was a dirty farm, full of weeds), we used to keep a file and sharpen the hoes now and then, so as to cut the weeds out. We get something the same in Rom. 8:1313For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13): “If ye through the Spirit do mortify (that just means, ‘put to death’) the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” In other words, “Kill the weeds.” We get more of them to mortify in Col. 3:55Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: (Colossians 3:5): fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Our brother says that with the hoe one can get close to the plants: and that is what we want: don’t let us spare these weeds, even though some of them we have learned to love. And another thing, remember that he tells us they are much easier to kill when they are young: you young folks will do well to remember this. Old bad habits are sometimes terribly hard to kill.
And then notice what he tells us about the strawberries. The more valuable the crop the more careful we are about cultivating it. Can you not just hear the father say to his son, ‘Go work today in my strawberry patch: and be very careful for fear you damage the roots, or cut the young shoots, or harm the tendrils, or spoil the fruit.’ Does not that help us to understand how it is we are to cultivate our own salvation with fear and trembling? It is no light matter we have in hand; and the more deeply we know our own selves, the more we will fear as we take up such a task. It is not the fear that we will be lost. It is not the fear that the Lord will forsake us. But it is the sense of our need of being more prayerful, and more circumspect than ever: feeling that it is a bitter, painful thing to compromise God in any way by want of jealous self-judgment in our walk— fear and trembling because of the seriousness of the conflict.
And we may well ask, “How are we to cultivate our own salvation?” Perhaps the first place should be given to that jealous self-judgment of which we have just spoken. Jealous, not of others, but jealous of God’s claims and His rights in our lives. I fear it is just here that so many of us fall down. We allow things in our lives that in the bottom of our hearts we know should not be there. We wake in the morning, and instead of getting up early for reading the Word, prayer and communion with the Lord, we allow the enemy to whisper, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep,” (Prov. 24:3333Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: (Proverbs 24:33)) and we need not be surprised that our tender plants do not grow, and so our poverty comes as one that travelleth; and our want as an armed man. (Prov. 24:33-3433Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: 34So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth; and thy want as an armed man. (Proverbs 24:33‑34)) And then how often our thoughts call for self-judgment! How we need to gird up the loins of our mind! How easy to allow foolish and even impure thoughts to come in: thoughts of pride and envy! Then we need to get out that sharp hoe, and do some cultivation with fear and trembling.
I wonder how many of our readers make a practice of early rising? You remember if the people of Israel were to get the manna for their day’s need, they had to get it before the sun was up. You remember that our Lord rose up a great while before day, and departed into a solitary place to pray. Later the disciples “earnestly pressed after Him.” It is the only place in the New Testament where this special word is used, stronger than “press after love,” or hospitality, or the many other objects after which we are called to press. And you note we are not exhorted to press after our Lord on that dark, early morning, long before the sun arose: we are only given the example; and our own love to our Lord will decide whether we shall follow that example, or lie in bed instead. But of this I am sure; these two: diligent self-judgment, and earnest early rising, are two of the most important ways of cultivating our own salvation. Is not this exactly what we find in that passage in 1 Peter we looked at? First, lay aside these sins which we all know so easily beset us: then as newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the Word; and the result is that we “grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:22As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: (1 Peter 2:2)). We have cultivated these tender plants, cultivated our own salvation: the weeds have been cut away, the hard crust broken up, the warm sunshine and the refreshing rain can come down to the roots; and the little plants grow up to salvation.
And just a word about “your own salvation” (vs. 12). The farmer very likely gets the hired man to cultivate his corn and soya beans for him. But you and I cannot do that. We must each cultivate our own salvation. It is like the shield of faith: each must carry his own shield. You remember Goliath had a man that went before him to carry his shield: and it cost him his life. So, in the same way, self-judgment and communion are terribly individual things, into which another can scarcely enter.
And then another thing. Sometimes I see the weeds in my neighbor’s field, and am tempted to leave my field and go over and cultivate his. True, we are to wash each other’s feet: but we need to remember the word, “cultivate your own salvation.” And we may find we have not really helped our neighbor, and mine own vineyard have I not kept.
And now we come to verse 13: “For God is the (One) working in you both the willing and the working for the sake of His good pleasure.” Oh, how glad we should be of this verse! As we look at the unequal struggle of verse 12 without it, we might well fear and tremble, with the wrong kind of fear: we might just as well give up the fight: for our enemies are too strong for us in our own strength. But, thanks be to God, we do not have to fight in our own strength. No! “God is the One working in you.” We have all His mighty power to draw on; and if we will but let Him do the work of cultivating, we will be sure of a good harvest. But too often we like to do it ourselves, in our own strength, and failure is certain.
And I love those words: “both the willing and the working” (vs. 13). Take the question of getting up in the morning: how hard it is on a cold, winter morning to drag ourselves out of bed! There is no “will” to do it at all. Our will is all the other way. Thank God we may call on His strength to make us willing, as well as to make us do it. And why should we? Oh, Listen! “For the sake of His good pleasure.” Is there one who loves Him who would not want to do anything He asks, when it is “for the sake of His good pleasure.” And when we know that “God is the (One) working in you both the willing and the working,” let us also remember “what is the exceeding greatness of His power to usward who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come; and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be Head over all things.”
Is that sufficient power for you and me to draw on to cultivate our own salvation? Then, let us, Beloved, draw on that wealth of power, and draw freely: for we will find it impossible to “overdraw.”
Heaven’s Bank
I know a never-failing Bank, well filled with golden store;
No other bank contains so much that can enrich the poor.
Should all the banks of Europe break, the Bank of England fail,
Fear not that Heaven’s glorious Bank its discounts will curtail.
Though a thousand notes lie scattered round, all signed, and sealed and free,
Yet many a doubting soul will say, Ah! they are not for me.
Proud unbelief cannot admit such tidings to be true;
And yet I tell each bankrupt soul, These notes belong to you!
I, too, right at the door have been with painful doubts molested:
Knowing, if Moses keeps the bank, my notes had been protested.
Some fear they write so bad a hand their notes will be rejected;
But always humble souls obtain much more than they expected.
Whenever all my money’s spent, and I’m in utter need,
Straight to my Bank I always go, for generous aid to plead.
I’ve been a thousand times before, and never was rejected;
No notes can ever be refused, that are by Grace accepted.
Should all the bankers close their doors, my bank stands open wide.
To all the chosen of the Lord, for whom the Savior died.
Sometimes my Banker, smiling says, “Why don’t you oftener come?”
And when I draw a little bill, “Why not a larger sum?”
(Rowland Hill)