Introduction: Heinrich Olbers was a brilliant 19th century German astronomer who posed a simple question of all: Why is the sky dark at night? He made many significant astronomical discoveries, but he is best known for proposing this perplexing question, called Olbers’ Paradox: If the universe is filled with stars, why is the sky dark at night?
Here was Olbers’ reasoning: If the universe is infinitely old and contains an infinite number of stars, then every possible line of sight should end with a star. Imagine being in a forest, seeing a tree everywhere you look. If the universe is filled with stars, then the whole nighttime sky should be filled with light. The nighttime sky, illumined by billions of stars, should be brighter than the daytime sky, which is only illumined by one star—the sun, though the sun is much closer.
Why then is the nighttime sky black?
Olbers had no answer. It was Olbers’ Paradox!
Even today, the answer is not easy to explain. One reason has to do with the fact that our universe is not infinite as the earlier astronomists believed. It was created in a moment of time in the past, so the light from many of those stars hasn’t yet reached the earth.
But here is another reason that comes from the mind and heart of God. I believe He put the burning stars into a dark sky to teach us something about our own lives and about the mission He has for us. He wants us to burn holes in the darkness. The Lord compares us to stars in the nighttime sky. That brings us to our passage for today—Philippians 2:14-18.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
Background: There’s something extraordinary about this passage. Dr. Gordon Fee said, “[This paragraph of Scripture has a] striking feature: the sudden and profuse influx of echoes from the Old Testament, which is quite unlike anything else in the Pauline corpus. So unique is this that one scarcely knows what to make of it.”
Virtually every phrase of this passage comes almost directly from the Old Testament. It traces the story of the Old Testament Israelites.
I’ll show you how this works out.
1. Do Everything Without Grumbling or Arguing
First, the apostle tells us to do everything without grumbling or complaining. Here Paul is harkening back to the Israelites who came out of Egypt. Their whole attitude was full of grumbling, mummering, arguing, and complaining.
Exodus 15 records that exuberance that swept over the Israelites after God had delivered them through the Red Sea and destroyed their enemies. They were now fully liberated and free. They sang with great joy and euphoria. But in the very next paragraph, they realized they were now in a desert with no drinkable water. “So the people grumbled against Moses, crying, ‘What are we to drink?’”
The next chapter begins: The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:1-3).
There are many other passages like this (Numbers 11:1; Numbers 14:26-27; Psalm 106:24-27). Though God delivered the Israelites from Egypt with mighty plagues and the miracle of the Red Sea; and though He had given them a leader like Moses to guide them; and though He was dwelling among them as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day; and though He had given them more promises than they could remember—yet they were unhappy, ill-spirited, fearful, and muttering among themselves.
The apostle Paul said: “Do not be like them!”
Orison Swett Marden wrote in one of his books about what he called “the sin of tired nerves.”
He said, “Small [people] who fret and stew and allow themselves to be annoyed and hampered by petty things, show by these earmarks that they are not big enough to command the situation, that they are not able to cope with conditions and preserve harmony. Their irritable ways indicate they are out of harmony with their environment, that they hold the wrong attitudes towards it, and hence they cannot be masters of the situation, but are its victims.”
He wrote, “Everybody we meet is helped or hindered by what we radiate. It makes all the difference in the world whether we go about with a smiling face or wearing a frown. A smile in the heart not only changes the expression but it changes the whole nature which, as we know, takes on the color of our moods.”
Marden said, “No one can really be happy or successful unless he is master of his moods.”
I know this isn’t easy. I’ve been treated badly before and felt a lot of hurt and pain. One day I studied this passage and it spoke to my heart; but then that very night I had a dream where I told someone off who had hurt me. The next morning, I played my favorite hymns playlist. The first song that came up was based on this broader passage in Philippians 2: “May the mind of Christ, my Savior, live in me from day to day; by His power and love controlling all I do and say.”
I said, “Lord, this truth is present in my consciousness but evidently not yet in my subconsciousness.” So I came back to this passage and studied it some more. Here’s what I realized. I cannot grow spiritually without keeping a positive attitude about life. The unfolding logic of this verse tells us this plainly. We cannot grow spiritually unless we keep a biblically positive view of life.
2. That You May Be Blameless and Pure, Children of God without Fault
Look at the passage again: 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure….
Notice the ‘so that.’
When we come to Jesus Christ and receive Him as Savior, we are clothed with the blamelessness and purity of Christ in God’s sight, but we still need to grow into our clothing. When I was going into adolescence, I went through a growth spurt. My mother bought clothes for me that were one or two sizes too large. My clothes were all too big; then almost overnight they fit perfectly; then they began getting too tight.
We are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, but we have to grow into it, and our growth is hindered by an unhappy and negative attitude. I’m not just cheerful, pleasant, and positive by nature—just the opposite. I have to let the Holy Spirit cultivate the mind of Christ in me.
And here, again, we go back to the Israelites. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses told the Israelites to be blameless—and in the very next verse he predicted the coming of a Messiah, who would be a prophet and who would speak to them words that would help them grow and to be distinct from the other nations.
Deuteronomy 18:13-15 says, “You must be blameless before the Lord your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you. You must listen to Him.”
In the early days of photography, a rather sour and unpleasant woman went to have her picture made. The photographer stuck his head out from under the cloth and said, “Brighten up your eyes a little.” She tried, but without much success.
“Relax and let your face get into a cheerful mood.”
“Look here,” said the woman. “If you think an old woman can brighten up and an old face can soften up, you don’t know anything about living.”
“Oh yes, I do,” said the photographer. “You have to work on it from the inside. It comes from the inside out. Now, try to get into a good mood and be cheerful and smile and let it show on your face.”
Just as she did so, he snapped the picture.
Later when the picture arrived, her friends gathered around and said, “Oh, Catherine, you look so young and cheerful!”
That evening she looked in the mirror and said, “If I could do that for the photographer,” she said, “I can do it again.” Every morning and every evening, she stood in front of the mirror and reminded herself of what the photographer had said.
In this way, she became a younger, brighter, happier person.
We have a divine photographer who has come out from under the dark shroud of death and with a voice of resurrection power says to us: Rejoice in the Lord… this is the day I have made; rejoice and be glad in it… be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. Do not fear. Be of good cheer.
We shake off our hurt feelings and our pride and our negativity, and listen to His Word. Our attitude improves—and we grow into the righteousness of Christ.
Now, where does this happen?
3. In a Warped and Crooked Generation
The passage goes on to say: 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”
Again, this is a direct quotation from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 32 says: “They are corrupt and not His children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation.”
Jesus used similar words in Matthew 12:39, when He called the people of His day “a wicked and adulterous generation.”
Recently, I read a story in Christianity Today about how Andrew Thorburn, the chief executive of Essendon Football Club in Australia, was pushed out of his job. He was forced to resign because he is a member of a conservative Melbourne church—a church that teaches biblical truth about gender, marriage, and sexuality. The club said his beliefs did not align “with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse, and welcoming club.” Thorburn said plainly, “My personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square.”
In America, we’ve now sunk to a new low. One commentator with Inside Sources put it this way: “It is unclear why public education has become obsessed with our children’s gender identities, even at obscenely young ages…. What is the end game here?”
They continued: “The obsessive push for gender theory and sexuality is not only limited to children in schools. Rather, sexuality and gender identity advocacy is spreading its tentacles to toddlers watching Disney films. Disney has announced its intention to drop gendered greetings and ‘add queerness’ everywhere possible to its productions.”
I read portions of one elementary textbook on sexuality, and I felt sick to my stomach. All I can say is that if you have children in school, you need to know exactly what is in their textbooks.
We are children of God in a warped and wicked age. But the Lord has us here for a purpose. Let’s continue reading:
4. Among Whom You Shine as Stars in the Sky, Holding Forth the Word of Life
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky….
In Deuteronomy 10:22, Moses said, “Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven in multitude.” And in Daniel 12, The Lord promised that those who were wise unto eternal life would shine like stars in the universe (Daniel 12:3).
The phrase “holding fast to the Word of life” could just as well be translated “holding forth the Word of life,” which fits the context here.
Recently I attended a banquet with a member of the Gideons International. He lives in California and told me he frequently goes to UCLA/Berkeley to give students Bibles. He literally holds forth the Word of Life. One student recently came up him in a belligerent manner and said, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”
My friend said, “I cannot think of one single thing that would be a better use of my time than giving free copies of the Bible to university students.”
The young man cursed him and walked away. But—there were other students who gladly received the Scripture.
Scott Drew, men’s basketball coach at Baylor, said, “…when I get to those gates [of Heaven], God’s not going to say, ‘What was your record? How many players did you help get in the pros? How many championships did you win?’”
He said that his greater purpose is seeing “players who accept Christ, players who maybe prayed for the first time with the team, players who get baptized, players who come back and get Bible studies and go to church…. Sometimes those victories are not written and talked about in the newspapers or TV, but…those are the ones that truly matter.”
God put the burning stars into a dark sky to teach us something about our own lives and about the mission He has for us.
It’s holding forth the Word of Life.
5. Then I Will Know I Did Not Labor in Vain
The passage ends on a Pauline note. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
This portion is also packed with the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah 65:23 promises that we will not labor in vain. And Paul used the same phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:58, one of my favorite Bible promises: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
We do not realize how God has and is using us, and He will continue to do so. Earlier this year a couple–Jeff and Heather Brigstock–invited me to a book signing at their coffee shop. It’s called South Water Manor in Gallatin, Tennessee, about a half hour from my house. It’s home to several shops, a wonderful restaurant and coffee shop, and an event venue. They told me how impactful my ministry had been to them in this business endeavor.
I had no idea what they meant. But then Jeff reminded me of a time some years before when I had been on a speaking engagement in Ireland. His parents had sat at my table at the banquet and had told me they had a son in Nashville who was very discouraged. He thought God no longer wanted to use him. Apparently I gave the couple my cell phone number, telling them to have their son call me after I returned home.
I forgot all about it, but one day several months later Jeff called me. He was in the throes of discouragement and we met for coffee.
I have very little recollection of the meeting, but Jeff told me that our conversation that day changed his life, his direction, his perception about himself and ministry, and eventually led to him and Heather opening the South Water Manor in Gallatin, which is a beehive of ministry to that community.
What encouraged me so much is the thought that over the years the Lord has used me in significant ways that I can’t even remember. The same is true for you if you’re in His will. We’re doing more good than we know, and our labor in the Lord is not in vain.
So this is Paul’s message to the Philippians and the Lord’s message to us. Let’s take it to heart and burn holes in the darkness.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold forth word of life, knowing that our work in the Lord is never in vain.