Until I read Genesis 20:4-6, Paul conclusion in Philippians 2:12-13 had continuously baffled me. Commending unity that can only be achieved through humility in the church in Philippi, Paul asked Philippians to learn not to do anything out of selfish ambition, but in humility consider others more significant.
Making his point clearer, Paul beseeched the Philippians to follow Christ Jesus’ example. According to Paul, Jesus was in the form of God, but did not hold to his majesty. In humbleness and for the sake of those who God called and draw to him, emptied himself taking the form of a human being, and went even further through a hideous death and rose to glory for their sake. (2:1-11)
From that, Paul concluded that Philippians, in his absence, were to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure”(2:12b-13 ESV) doing all things without grumbling or disputing.
How was it possible for Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, if it is God who works in them both to will and work for God’s own good pleasure? If God works in them to will and work, how then are Philippians said to will and to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling? Does not God’s working in Philippians’ will and work somehow negate Philippians responsibility to work out their own salvation?
In a theatrical account of Abimelech, Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20 my bafflement like a vapor disappeared. In this account, Abraham found himself in the Egypt-like déjà vu (Gen. 12:10-20) where because of his wife’s dazzling beauty, his life was in danger. In fear that men without fear of God will kill him to have her, Abraham said, for the second time, that his wife was his sister. Abimelech king of Gerar took Sarah but did not sleep with her. The drama then unfolds:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. (v3-6 ESV)
God recognized that Abimelech did not sleep with Sarah in integrity of his heart and clarified that Abimelech’s will and working out not to lay with Sarah was so because He worked in him, namely God kept Abimelech from sinning against Him. God did not let Abimelech sleep with his new mistress Sarah.
Philippians, like Abimelech, are called to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, yet it is God who works in their willing and working for His own good pleasure. The working out of salvation with fear and trembling is possible because they are in God’s theatre.