Fear and Trembling
A Greek word translated as the noun “fear” shows up 10 times in the New Testament, and the one translated as the noun “trembling” shows up 3 times. The combination phrase, “fear and trembling,” using those Greek nouns, shows up only three times, always in the writings of St. Paul, once each in 2 Corinthians 7:15, Ephesians 6:5, and Philippians 2:12. More on the Greek at the end of this post.
It is worth noting that a search in English for the phrase “fear and trembling” shows one additional instance, the case of the woman healed of bleeding by secretly touching Jesus’s garment and then being called forward by Jesus. But that passage uses the Greek verbs for fearing and trembling rather than the nouns. The three passages using the nouns which, by the way, happen to rhyme, phobos and tromos, are these.
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul writes to the Corinthians that Titus, who went to them as an uncircumcised Gentile convert Christian missionary, bringing the Gospel, remembers their obedience to his teaching when they received him with “fear and trembling.” It seems unclear whether the “fear and trembling” were in awe of the teaching or in fear of the convert, but I vote for the former.
In Ephesians 5, Paul advises slaves to be obedient to their masters in “fear and trembling” in sincerity of heart, as to Christ. Remembering that slavery in the 1st century Roman Empire was sometimes voluntary, not racial, and bore no resemblance to the plantation slavery of the US, it can easily be understood that Paul was advising respect, “as to Christ,” rather than fear.
The Philippians 2 usage is a bit more challenging since it is there that Paul advises the Philippians to “work out their salvation in “fear and trembling.” That is enough to cause any of us to be scared and shaky! Here is that phrase in context, preceded by explanation of exactly who Christ was and followed by some explanation of what it meant to Paul to work out salvation:
Who Jesus Christ Was/Is
- “in the form of God” but didn’t exploit that equality
- “emptied himself”
- “taking the form of a slave”
- “in human likeness”
- “humbled himself”
- “obedient to death, even death on a cross”
- “greatly exalted” by God and given “name above every name”
- that before him, “every knee should bend”
- and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”
- “to the glory of God the father
What the Philippians Should Do
And then, based on that description of who Jesus Christ was and what He did, we get a “So” or a “therefore,” and instruction about how to live in Philippians 2:12.
So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
And How They Should Do It
And that instruction seems to be followed by some explanation of why and how to work out salvation with fear and trembling. It begins with “For” which, therefore, links what follows with what has preceded: For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.
- Do everything without grumbling or complaining
- That you may be blameless and innocent children of God
- Without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation
- Among whom you shine like lights in the world
- As you hold on to the word of life so I will not have labored in vain
Joyful, Joyful We Adore Him
And then St. Paul ends the passage on a positive and joyful note in verses 17-18:
But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you. In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
It is good to remember that St. Paul wrote this letter from prison, probably in Rome awaiting his execution and that its fundamental purpose was to instruct the Philippians and to plead for Christian Unity. Consistent with that purpose is the introduction to the section which includes the “fear and trembling” phrase, beginning with love and then with some explanation of Christian love, the theme of our discussion on Nov 6.
Philippians 2:1-5 If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but (also) everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
You can enjoy the whole section uninterrupted, Philippians 2:1-18, HERE. Note especially the footnote on Philippians 2:12, the fear and trembling verse.
Perhaps an abridged and less literary version of this beautifully worded message from St. Paul to the Philippians might be, “Love each other, putting the interests of each other first, and practice humility, remembering, with respect and awe, who Jesus is and what he did, always working joyfully to follow his example and be good witnesses to the world.”
It’s Greek to Me
And, if some further punishment is desired, here are the Greek word explanations.
And, if you want to read what somebody else has to say about fear and trembling, check out this link: