“Do all things without grumbling and disputing” (Philippians 2:14).
It’s still hard for me to read this statement without hearing the children’s praise song from Steve Green’s Hide ‘Em In Your Heart video. The verse does seem to function mainly as a tool for parents who want their kids to have a better attitude about chores. All well and good, but I suspect that Paul wasn’t really thinking of Philippian children whining about cleaning their rooms when he wrote it.
But what was he thinking about?
Note that Paul calls them to avoid grumbling and disputing in order that they may be blameless and innocent, “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (v. 15). He alludes here to the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:5, where Moses prophesies concerning Israel:
“They have dealt corruptly with him;
They are no longer his children because they are blemished;
They are a crooked and twisted generation.”
Paul wants the Philippians to avoid the blemishes of Israel, and the reference to “grumbling” then becomes clear: What characterized Israel in the wilderness? Grumble, grumble, grumble. The Philippians must not “grumble” as the Israelites did, (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:10), and “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” is a pointed way to say, don’t fail as old Israel failed. Part of the burden of this epistle is precisely for Paul to assure the Philippian gentiles that it is they, and not those who merely “mutilate the flesh,” who are the true circumcision (3:2-3). The generation of Israel who rejected Christ and then rejected his apostles was crooked and perverse (cf. Acts 2:40), and in Christ the Philippians were inheriting the Abrahamic promises and shining among their generation as stars, standing witnesses to God’s faithfulness (cf. Genesis 15:5; Daniel 12:3). They should resist falling into the same pattern of disobedience.
Our own generation is no less perverse, and the church is still the Israel of God. We need to hear the same warning, and it’s worth thinking about more carefully. How exactly did Israel grumble? How might we find ourselves committing the same sin?
Just three days after crossing the Sea, the only water that Israel could find was bitter, “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24).
Camping later at Rephidim, and again without water, “the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’” (Exodus 17:3).
Israel grumbled about the lack of food: “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron… ‘you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2-3). When God does provide food, they then grumble that it’s always the same, saying “there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:6).
There was grumbling also from fear of the Canaanites. When the spies reported back, the whole congregation grumbled, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” (Numbers 14:2-3).
Bad water and lack of water, lack of food and boring food, strong enemies, and finally also in Korah’s rebellion, they grumble about God’s appointed authority structure and the position of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16).
The common factor here is that this grumbling was really against God. As Moses says to Israel in Exodus 16:8, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the LORD.”
In the gospel of John the episode of the manna is replayed. Jesus supernaturally provides bread in the multiplied loaves, and then identifies himself as the bread of life, the true bread from heaven, the reality of which Israel’s manna was only a sign (John 6:32-35). The response of the Jews is the same as it had been long ago. They “grumbled about him, because he said, ’I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (John 6:41). They don’t like what Jesus says, they don’t like what he asks of them, and many turn away permanently (John 6:66).
What About Us?
Israel faced real trial in the wilderness. The thirst and hunger were real, and the Canaanites were real. God was calling them to trust in his promise, and trust in his provision. The position of the Philippians was not so different. They faced suffering and real threat from opponents (Philippians 1:28-29). Deprivation, discomfort, and certainly social inconvenience was likely to come from their commitment to Christ. And as Israel grumbled against God, and the Jews grumbled against Jesus, the Philippians as well might be tempted to grumble against the yoke of Christ.
Paul writes to the Philippians from prison, and one of his main themes is contentment with suffering for the sake of Christ (cf. 1:7, 12, 18-21; 2:17; 3:7; 4:11-13). In this epistle, he holds himself up as a model of this (3:17; 4:9). When Paul tells the Philippians to “do all things without grumbling and disputing,” he is telling them to embrace the inconvenience and even the suffering that comes specifically from faithfulness to Christ. It isn’t about doing the dishes. Complaining in general of course is a thing to avoid, but the specific stakes for the Philippians were high.
Does being honest make you lose out on some extra money? Does avoiding temptation also mean missing out of certain social events? Does caring for someone in need mean real inconvenience and sacrifice? Might confession of Christ result in prison? Those are cases where we might be tempted to grumble against God.
When Paul speaks in Philippians 3:18 of those who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their belly, and glory in their shame,” he is probably not thinking of overt persecutors (those who oppose Christ explicitly), but of these grumbling types—or the type who would grumble if they even bothered with trying to be faithful in the first place. After all, Paul tells the Philippians to follow his example, and not these people’s. He would hardly have to tell them not to follow the example of actual persecutors.