Years ago, when I was in college, I participated in a Bible study group for college students. The object lesson I'm sharing here is not mine; I first heard it from Lenny, the leader of that Bible study group. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it here.
Imagine that you get a phone call from a friend who says he has a gift to give you. Curious, you ask him what it is. He tells you that he has received a van Gogh painting, and he would like to pass it on to you. You are stunned, knowing that any van Gogh painting is worth millions of dollars.
Your friend tells you that you need to make arrangements to come pick up the painting and bring it home. Imagine how you feel at this moment. How are you going to collect the painting? Will you drive your car there and pick it up yourself? Will you hire a moving van? Or maybe even an armored truck? And what about once you've received the painting? What will you do with it? What kinds of security systems will you have to install in your house? What about UV protection for the artwork?
As you pick up the painting, and as you install it in your home, you approach the entire process with "fear and trembling." Not because you are afraid that your friend will take back his gift, but because you understand how precious and valuable it is, and how easily damaged it is. It is a treasured possession, and you want to guard it and protect it.
In Philippians 2, Paul writes:
Paul is not telling us that our salvation is ours to earn. No, like that van Gogh painting, it is a gift beyond value or belief. But now that it is ours, we treat it with all the care and regard that a priceless gift deserves. We understand that the gift of God's grace is fully ours, but with that gift comes a grave responsibility.
And in the midst of this, Paul offers this reassurance -- you're not on your own. As he had already promised in Philippians 1:6, God is, and will be at work in you.
As an added note to Lenny's object lesson, it's interesting to note that the phrase "work out" in this verse comes from a compound Greek word: katergazomai. Kata has a variety of meanings, so any compound word built from it also may have many possible meanings. Kata has these likely meanings in this verse: "toward the completion of," "in the direction of," or "according to." Gazomai simply means "work." Thus, we could alternately translate that phrase as "work according to your salvation," "work toward the completion of your salvation," or "work in the direction of your salvation." That fits nicely with the next verse which assures us that God is working in the same direction!
Not work for it, but work according to it, and toward its fulfillment at the day of the Lord. My life now, in this world, should be aimed toward that future day of glory.
Since I was awake this morning at 3:00 a.m., I flipped on the television to see if I could find out what was happening with Hurricane Sandy. After a few minutes of news, I caught a brief video clip of some rescue workers wading through waist-deep water down a city street. What were they doing? The voice-over said that they were rescuing people trapped in upper stories of buildings, who had ignored the evacuation order.
As I watched, I thought, "I wonder how these rescue workers feel about this -- putting their own lives in jeopardy in order to save people who were in a bad situation through their own fault. I wonder if they're thinking I'd rather be home with my wife and kids than helping out someone who wouldn't even follow the directions they were given..."
But regardless of what they were thinking, they were out on the streets in the middle of a horrible storm, risking their own lives.
And then as I saw one of the rescued people walk to the foreground of the video frame, I thought, "I wonder how the people feel who are being rescued -- there must be some strange mix of joy and shame: joy for their salvation, and shame that they had to put someone in such a dangerous position for their salvation."
Isn't that how our spiritual salvation is? We are in need of salvation through our own grievous fault, though our own inability to follow directions. And our rescuer did not say, "I'd rather just stay at home tonight..." He not only risked his life, but he also gave his life -- a cruel death offered up for people who were, at heart, His own enemies.
And so I think of these words from Isaac Watts:
Thus might I hide my blushing face
When His dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness
And melt mine eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Dear Lord I give myself away,
'Tis all that I can do.
Ever stop to think about gifts you've been given, and why they are important to you? There are many reasons why a gift might be important to you...let's look at a few.
#1: A gift might be from someone who is very special to you. With Valentine's Day right around the corner, this is a reason lots of people are thinking about. When you think about the gifts people receive for Valentines Day...roses, chocolates, jewelry, etc., they are rarely practical, and often not even all that expensive. And yet, when a girl gets her very first rose from a guy, she's likely to keep it on display until it's mostly wilted...then she'll press it and keep it forever (or at least until she breaks up with the guy!). It's not because the rose itself is so valuable...it's because it comes from someone who is very valuable to her.
#2: A gift might be life-changing. This was the case with the very first ventriloquist puppet I ever received. It was a Christmas gift from my parents when I was in sixth grade. None of us guessed at the time that this gift would result in me traveling not just around the state, but throughout New England and across the world. That gift really did change my life.
#3: A gift might be expensive. Obviously, if we receive a gift which costs a lot of money, we treat it very carefully, because we know that it is irreplaceable. I recently received a large gift which allowed me to refit my recording studio. I purchased a somewhat expensive studio microphone. Then last week I needed a sound system to take to our youth group's winter retreat. Do you think I took my new microphone? Oh, no! That one stayed safely at home. Why? Because it was costly, I was protecting it.
I think it's interesting that our salvation fits all three of these categories. It is a gift from someone who should be very precious to us: our Lord Jesus Christ. Why is he precious to us? Because of His great love for us. 1 John 4:19 gives us the reason for our love: because He loved us first.
Our salvation is also precious to us because it is life-changing. This is certainly true, although we don't always see the changes immediately. Jesus Christ promised us in John 10:10 that He had come not just to give us life (and that's pretty signifinant in itself!) but also to give us an abundant life. How precious should that gift be to us?
And, of course, the gift is a costly one. In 1 Peter 1:18 we are told that our salvation (redemption) was not purchased with something perishable (silver or gold) but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. What a costly gift our salvation was! Jesus didn't reach into His pocket and pull out thirty pieces of silver to purchase my salvation...it was far more costly than that! He gave up everything to give me the most precious gift I will ever receive.
So the final question is...how do we treat this gift? 1 Peter 1:17 tells us that, because our redemption was such a costly gift, we are to conduct ourselves "with fear." Just as I would never risk damaging my expensive studio microphone by treating it carelessly, I should never treat my relationship with Jesus Christ in a careless manner!
It is the most precious thing I have in this life.