Fear and Trembling

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

I had for some time been worried about the expression fear and trembling.” It did not seem likely to me that Paul in writing to the Philippians could have meant literally that they were to work out their salvation in a condition of anxiety and nervousness. We all know that fear destroys love and spoils relationships, and a great deal of the New Testament is taken up with getting rid of the old ideas of fear and substituting the new ideas of love and trust. I realized that the Greek word translated “fear” can equally well mean “reverence” or “awe” or even “respect,” but I was bothered about the “trembling.”

Surely the same Spirit who inspired Paul to write to Timothy that God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power and of a sound mind could not also have meant us to live our entire lives in a state of nervous terror. I came to the conclusion, a little reluctantly, that the expression in fear and trembling had become a bit of a cliché, even as it has in some circles today. As I went on translating I found that this must be the case. For when Paul wrote to the Corinthians and reported that Titus had been encouraged and refreshed by their reception of him, he then went on to say that the Corinthian Christians received him with fear and trembling! (II Corinthians 7:15). Now this makes no sense, unless it is a purely conventional verbal form implying proper respect. For, little as we know of Titus, we cannot imagine any real Christian minister being encouraged and refreshed by a display of nervous anxiety. We get the phrase occurring again in Paul’s advice to Christian slaves (Ephesians 6:5), where the context makes it quite clear that faithfulness and responsibility are much more what Paul means than fear and trembling.”

J.B. Phillips
Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony (1967), pages 62-64

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