Over several days, we’ve looked at two readings of Phil 2:12. The first is from the King James translation, and the second is from the ‘Message.’
‘fear and trembling’
‘reverent and sensitive before God.’
We’ve also considered two steps in our study of Phil 2:12.
Step One: we gather and survey data.
Step Two: we look at the context.
Today, we add a third step in our study.
Step Three: we ask which best reading fits best.
Pulling Stuff Together
Early in this study I said that ‘fear and trembling’ is an idiom, a figure of speech. God put ‘fear and trembling’ on Israel’s enemies [Dt 2:25] but told Israel herself NOT to fear or tremble [Dt 20:3]. Recall King Belshazzar’s alarm and fear when he saw the handwriting on the wall [Da 5:9]. Mind, Jeremiah addressed ‘fear and trembling’ language to Israel, [5:22]; but he did so denouncing their utter corruption. That’s the rub! Why?
As yesterday’s post shows, the believers at Philippi were getting it right. They were obeying! They obeyed all along. They obeyed in Paul’s presence and they obeyed in his absence [Phil 2:12]. God was working his work and his will within them. Paul is commending them [2:13]!
Testing Two Readings
Things we’ve seen lead to several questions:
- For what conceivable reason would Paul in the midst of commending the Philippians inject into the narrative language reserved for God’s enemies? That is unseemly and runs counter to the spirit Paul wants to elicit.
- How can a ‘fear and trembling’ reading coexist with encouragement in Christ, consolation of love, fellowship of the Spirit, and affection and compassion? This reading is out of place with Paul’s broader appeal.
- Why would Paul in the midst of speaking repeatedly of their joy and his interject a saying that God wants craven fear as a matter of principle?
- This passage puts Jesus’ and the Philippians’ obedience in parallel. Those who contend for a craven ‘fear and trembling’ reading must explain what part of Jesus Christ fears and trembles before his heavenly Father.
This fourth issue is especially thorny because it concerns the Trinity. The question of whether the Fundamentalist/broadly_Evangelical view of the Trinity is particularly Biblical itself requires another post.
A Preferred Reading
Phil 2 discusses humility of mind, preferring others over self, looking out for others’ interests, and imitating Christ in our attitude and behavior. Likely, Paul uses ‘work out your salvation’ as a summary for all he is saying. They ‘work out salvation’ in the sense that in all these things, they ‘press faith into life.’ We live a cruciform [cross-shaped] life.
Nothing here tells us to cower in fear and trembling before God on general principle. The common IFB line on Phil 2:12 interrupts the flow of Paul’s tightly knit statement. The abrupt interjection of a saying with a very different connotation and spirit cannot be admitted EXCEPT for the most compelling reasons. But those reasons are not forthcoming!
‘Reverent and sensitive before God’ much better fits Paul’s argument. The lexicons allow it [even if pastor doesn’t]. The context indicates it, as does the ‘Christ-and-his-people’ parallel. It is the convergence of MANY lines of inquiry which indicate that the better reading is:
‘…reverent and sensitive before God.’
How Do They Do It
When people hear a sane, stable explanation of a passage plus enough detail to show that yes, a good case can be made for this alternative, we are left reeling. ‘How could I have missed this so easily for so long!’
As standard procedure, many IFB and broader evangelical preachers:
Divorce a text from its context.
Derive from it a universal principle.
Preach their principle as timeless truth.
This has made God’s people hostages to hosts of spurious inventions! The result is that faith becomes a struggle and growth is stinted.
But thank God, we need not be dependent upon them. God is good.
More next time…