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Fear and Trembling, Part 2 – Going to Damascus

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Fear and Trembling, Part 2

Runge, Steven E. High Definition Commentary: Philippians.

Runge, Steven E. High Definition Commentary: Philippians.

A continuation of my previous post here, also known as unashamedly reusing a paper as blog posts.

IV.       Form, Structure and Movement

[outline removed because it is boring]

This Epistle contains repetitive words and themes which serve to emphasize the intent of the letter. The root words for grace, thanks and joy –  χάρις/χαιρω – are used nineteen times in this letter. From this brief analysis it is clear then that thankfulness and joy are going to be a predominant message of Philippians. We can also see from the brief outline some elements of parallelism, specifically in chapters 1 and 2. Paul seems to repeat a similar point – to pursue holiness – in light of his example in imprisonment and Christ’s example of suffering death on a cross. Chapters 3 and 4 serve as exhortations of the foundations primarily set in chapters 1 and 2.

Our verses from chapter 2 appear to fit right in the middle of a transitional point for the letter. Prior to verses 2:12-13 Paul is primarily giving himself and Christ as examples of obedience and joy during suffering. Verses 2:14ff and chapters 3 and 4 outline more situations to find joy in Christ, whether it be in our daily pursuit of a life in Christ (verses 3:12-21), joy in ministry (verses 2:19-30 and 4:2-9) or God’s provision (4:10-20). Prior to verses 2:12-13 we read reasons and examples to live out a joy in Christ during trials, following these verses the letter moves in to sort of a practical application of what this looks like lived out. We can get that sense from 2:12, beginning with “Therefore…” which really tells us everything Paul had said up to that point is reason to “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” It is clear then that these verses are an important hinge and turning point on which the letter relies.

V.        Detailed Analysis

Now that the text has been surveyed, the structure of the letter has been analyzed and important historical and literary details have been considered, focus must now turn to our specific passages at hand. As has already been discussed, Philippians 2:12-13 is a hinge on which this letter switches its primary focus from the foundation of Paul’s exhortations to the meat of the exhortations themselves. This will become clearer as the individual sections of this passage are dissected.

The passage begins with the words “Ὥστε, ἀγαπητοί μου,” (Therefore, my beloved). When we see a ‘therefore’ in Scripture the first question we must ask is “What is it there for?” In regards to this passage, the word  Ὥστε tells us that Paul is going to draw a conclusion from his preceding argument. Paul has just finished spending forty-one verses primarily giving us examples of joy and obedience during suffering. Beginning with his own imprisonment, and moving into the far exceeding example of Christ’s humility on the cross in verses 2:1-11, Paul is going to issue an imperative to his audience.

Paul delays his command briefly to provide more emphasis on the imperative. His next words are “καθὼς πάντοτε ὑπηκούσατε” (as, or just as, you always obeyed). Commending the Philippians for their obedience is consistent with the overall tone of this letter. As has already been discussed, Paul is exceedingly grateful for the support in his ministry. However, given the exhortations that will follow it is clear Paul wants to see their obedience and behavior increase. We feel the weight of his desires with the next section of verse 12, “μὴ ὡς ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ μου μόνον ἀλλὰ νῦν πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἐν τῇ ἀπουσίᾳ μου” (not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence). What does it mean for Paul to say “but much more in my absence”? There is a reasonable conclusion to be made from the preceding verses in 2:1-11. It has been shown previously that Paul had a very close relationship with the Philippian church, and rightly so. It is no wonder then that Paul begins his letter with a model of his leadership through service and imprisonment. However, Paul does not want the Philippian church to use him as the primary model for their Christian faith. It is not his intention for the church to need his presence as their foundation. Rather, they have Christ as their example – his humble service, his life, his death and his resurrection to look to. So then, having outlined Christ’s magnificent sacrifice for sinners on the cross, it is right for Paul to say but much more in my absence. Having Christ as their example, how much more so they must continue to strive for obedience!

Finally we arrive at Paul’s imperative command, the conclusion of  Ὥστε; “μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε(with fear and trembling workout your own salvation). As was already discussed, ‘fear and trembling’ are words that allude back to language from the Old Testament, specifically the pagan’s view towards God and the way he worked through his people Israel. What does it mean for Paul to issue the imperative workout your own salvation? This is a key question address when understanding this passage. Could Paul actually be saying that salvation is dependent on our own works to attain it? Some who have immature understandings of Paul’s theology might want to take that idea and run with it, however that would not be consistent with Paul’s theology as a whole (Eph. 2:8).

In addition to being inconsistent with the entirety of Paul’s writings, thinking this imperative means we earn salvation for ourselves would also be inconsistent with the entirety of Philippians. Paul says later in the letter “…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” What we begin to see in this imperative, and will continue to see in the remainder of the letter, is that it is very important for Paul to communicate this idea: that because we have grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we must continue to devote ourselves to obedience and striving to persevere until the end. A person who says something to the effect of “Because I have grace, I can take it easy and not try too hard” would be entirely foreign and incompatible to Paul. This idea of grace-fueled obedience is supported in verse 13, but we also see it in verse 2:16 (“…I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”), verse 3:12 (“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”), and verse 3:14 (“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”) among others.

Paul continues expounding on this idea of grace-fueled obedience in verse 13. Continuing with an explanatory clause he says “θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν” (For God is the one working in you). The first observation to be made from this segment should be that Paul chose to put θεὸς at the beginning of the sentence, rather than ὁ ἐνεργῶν. As the latter is the subject (since it has the article), we would normally expect the subject to precede ἐστιν. It should be noted thusly that Paul chose to put θεὸς at the beginning of the sentence to provide weight, “For GOD is the one working in you”. This emphasis on God being the one working in the believer would indeed back up the idea that it is not works-based salvation Paul is speaking of in these passages, rather obedience to God who is already working in us.

The remainder of this detailed analysis will be spent on the second half of verse 13, “καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.” I leave out the translation for this second half because it can go one of two ways, depending on how the substantive infinitives are translated. Depending on which translation is chosen, the implications of this verse significantly change.

The common translation amongst today’s major translations (ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV) would say something to the effect of “both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” And this makes sense considering the standard use of the infinitive verb. However, as Wallace points out, because the infinitives are used substantively and they have the article, it is entirely possible for a different translation to be rendered. This translation would be something to the effect of “both the willing and the working for his good pleasure.” (Wallace, 602). While the wording only slightly changes, the meaning has a drastic difference. While the former translation only tells us that it is God who is working in the believer, the latter translation would tell us that it was God who both initiated and is currently working in the believer. While I would like to see this verse behind my reformed bias and stick to the latter translation, I see no immediate reason to choose this translation over the one used by every English translation. There appears to be nothing in the passages immediate context nor the letter as a whole to give reason to choose the latter translation.

That being said, the former translation of “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” is plenty of evidence to show that Paul is not speaking of works-based salvation in verse 12. Rather, this segment provides much weight to the idea of grace-fueled obedience. Why should believers work out their salvation with fear and trembling? Because it is GOD, the God of the universe and the head of the Trinity who dwells and works in us, therefore it is necessary for us to be obedient to his working in us to fuel our will and work for His good pleasure.




Aland, Kurt, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini et al. The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (With Morphology), Php 2:12–13, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993; 2006.

Fee, Gordon D. Vol. 11, Philippians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, 11-39. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Metzger, Bruce Manning and United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.), 546. London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Silva, Moisés. Philippians. 2nd ed. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1–22. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics. 46, 602-603. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

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