Philippians Day Nine
October 2, 2020, 5:10 AM

Working it Out?
Philippians 2:12-13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed,
so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you,
both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

As of late, I have taken an interest in the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy. I used to think it the cheesiest of the cheese variety. Icons plus Smells, Bells and Mystery. A colleague of mine once playfully defined Orthodoxy thusly, “All the magic of Rome, without the explanation.”

However, upon further reflection, I find the Orthodox specialty via art, to tell the Story without words, engaging. The desire of the East seems to be uniting heart and mind in contemplation of the Divine mysteries of the Faith. Not a bad goal.

I read not long ago that iconography is designed to be observed by candlelight in the stead of prosaic museum lighting. The flickering flame waves before the golden egg tempera icon, bringing the icon, seemingly to life. Drawing the worshiper into the Story. Each detail of the icon, intentional. Symbolically keyed. Theologically loaded. A visual Bible. I hope I’ve done a little justice here for my Orthodox brothers and sisters.

I found the icon pictured above and was drawn to it (No pun intended). A 12th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. It seems to fit well the featured text from Philippians 2:12-13 – “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling…”

The iconic imagery is of “Jacob’s Ladder.” Genesis 28:11-12 – On the run from his brother, Esau: “Taking one of the stones of the place [soon to be Bethel], [Jacob] put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

Some context to the icon itself— A mysterious monk by the name of John of the Ladder, the abbot of St Catherine’s in the 7th century, was the contemporary inspiration. Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis 28 represents the spiritual ascent of the monks of St. Catherine. The icon shows Jesus as the fulfilment of Jacob’s dream — He is at the top of the Ladder with open hands. By His death and resurrection on the Cross, He provides the way to the Father. In Jacob’s vision, angels are going up and down freely on the Ladder, foreshadowing open access from earth to heaven.

John of the Ladder is the figure in white near the top (I haven’t yet ciphered the Greek scrawl) his monk charges laboriously climbing the rungs behind. You can see the angels in the upper left, and the “so great a cloud of witnesses,” i.e. the saints of Hebrews 12:1 in the lower right. The brooding Spirit (wild geese?) hovers over the saints within the protective bubble of the heavenly dimension. The demons of the evil one firing deadly arrows and lassos, making upward movement treacherous. Some poor souls, as you see, falling off, losing their way, turning away — One even falling into the abyss of the primordial waters. (Intriguingly, there are seven falling; perhaps an intimation the number is perfectly fixed?)

Now, you may be asking yourself, what has this got to do with Philippians 2:12-13?

Let me try. “Working out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” is captured in the imagery of climbing up the Ladder. It is there, but it must be used. The Lord Jesus has made a way, and beckons to us, “Come.” The path up the Ladder is sometimes arduous. There are times when it doesn’t seem worth it. There are times when the “arrows” of the evil one overwhelm. There are those who say, “I believe,” but the profession is not genuine, and fall away. It takes effort. The pithy aphorism, “Let go, and let God” is misleading. The Christian walk is heart, soul, mind and will working together, heavenward. Holy sweat inducing.

Now, I am Reformed. I believe in the sovereignty of God. I believe Ephesians 2:5 truthful – “…When we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ-- by grace [we] have been saved…” In fact, that’s what’s going on here. Look: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You can “work out your own salvation” precisely because God has birthed in you the gift of Faith. God has resurrected you by the breath of the Holy Spirit. God has embraced you in Christ. You have everything you need to work on your restoration into the image of God; that constitutional inheritance in which you were originally created. That’s heady stuff.

I find it telling that our Westminster Confession of Faith hints at the symbiotic relationship between our own free will and God’s effectual calling. The Chapter on Free Will (ch.9) immediately, intentionally precedes the chapter on Effectual Calling (ch.10), leading into what we call the Ordo Salutis (i.e. the Order of Salvation) — Justification (ch.11); Adoption (ch.12), Sanctification (ch.13), Saving Faith (ch.14), Repentance (ch.15), Good Works (ch.16), and Perseverance (ch.17). The chapter on Free Will leads into the work of God in a Reformed Confession! God wills salvation; but human effort is always employed.

I think our Orthodox brothers and sisters can help us navigate the waters of free will and predestination. It’s both/and. They understand we will never get our minds around this soteriological mystery. We need to contemplate the greatness of our God, the mysterium tremendum (“awe inspiring mystery”).

And so, God calls! You work your way up the Ladder. You are on the way. Your Savior has died for you. He has called you. Work out (climb) your own salvation, with fear and trembling – seriously, intentionally, methodically, determinedly, faithfully – for your God works it out in you; for His good pleasure.

Something to contemplate today. Stay on the Ladder! (i.e. Keep the Faith)

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