Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Philippians 2:1-13



To understand the beginning of chapter 2, we need to look first at chapter 1. In 1:12-26, Paul describes his own situation. He is in prison­­­, but assures the Philippian Christians that his imprisonment has actually served to spread the Gospel, because it has given him opportunity to witness to the imperial guard (1:12-13). He emphasizes this reassurance to counter any inclination on the part of the Philippian Christians to interpret Paul’s imprisonment as evidence that God has abandoned him.

Also in chapter 1, Paul used phrases that spell out the problem that he is addressing in this letter:

“Some indeed preach Christ even out of envy and strife,
and some also out of good will.
The former insincerely preach Christ from selfish ambition,
thinking that they add affliction to my chains” (1:15-16).

This kind of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition plagues the Philippian church.

In 1:27-30, Paul gives his prescription for this problem. He calls Philippian Christians to live their lives “worthy of the Good News of Christ” (1:27a) so they can stand “firm in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the Good News” (1:27b).


1 If (Greek: oun—if, therefore) there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, 2 make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; 3 doing nothing through rivalry (eritheia) or through conceit (kenodoxian), but in humility (Greek: tapeinophrosyne), each counting others better (hyperechontas) than himself; 4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

“If there is therefore (oun) any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion” (v. 1). The little word Greek oun (therefore) connects this verse to what Paul said in chapter 1 (see “The Context” above).

When someone uses the word “if” to begin a sentence, we must look to the context to determine whether he/she is describing a factual condition or something contrary to fact. The context of this verse makes it clear that Paul is talking about something that is true. There IS “exhortation in Christ.” There IS “consolation of love.” There IS “fellowship of the Spirit.” There ARE “tender mercies and compassion.” Most Christians have experienced at least some of these things and know that they are the case. When Paul says “if,” he intends these Philippian Christians to nod their heads “Yes” and say, “Well, of course there is encouragement in Christ—of course there is consolation in love.”

Paul is just setting the stage with this verse. See verse 2 to see his where he takes this.

“make my joy full” (v. 2a). An “if” clause is often followed by a “then” clause. “If A is true, then B naturally follows”—or “If X is true, then do Y.” In this verse, Paul doesn’t use the word “then,” but the structure of these verses implies the “if…then” format.

• “If there is any exhortation in Christ, (then) make my joy full.”
• “If there is any consolation of love, (then) make my joy full.”
• “If there is any fellowship of the Spirit, (then) make my joy full.”
• “If there are any tender mercies and compassion, (then) make my joy full.”

by being like-minded (phronete hina ho auto—thinking the same way), having the same love (echontes ten auten agape), being of one accord (sympsychos) of one mind (phronountes to hen—focusing on one thing) (v. 2b). The Philippian Christians need to do these four things to make Paul’s joy complete. They need to be like- minded. They need to have the same love. They need to be of one accord. They need a unity of minds.

These four phrases are just four ways of saying the same thing. Paul is calling these Philippian Christians to be fully united with each other so that they can gain strength from one another.

“being like-minded” (v. 2b-1) (phronete hina ho auto). The Greek word phroneo has a variety of meanings. It can mean “think” or “feel” or “focus your thoughts” or “be mindful of.” A literal translation of phronete hina ho auto would be “thinking the same way.”

“having the same love” (v. 2b-2) (echontes ten auten agape). Agape is one of the two words used in the New Testament for love—the other being philos. Agape (and its related verb, agapao) is used five times as often as philos.

The classic distinction between agape and philos is that agape has to do with a concern for the well-being of the other person while philos has to do with brotherly love—friendship love—companionate love—the kind of love where a person receives as well as gives. While there is some question about the sharpness of that distinction, scholars tend to agree that “philos does contain an element of mutuality not found in agape” (Melick). In other words, philos has to do both with giving and getting, while agape has to do only with giving—with an unalloyed concern for the welfare of the other person.

Agape love is more a “doing” than a “feeling” word. It doesn’t require that we approve of the actions of the person whom we love—or even that we enjoy their company. It does require us to act in behalf of that person—to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion. An agape person will do what is possible to feed the hungry—and to give drink to the thirsty—and to welcome the stranger—and to clothe the naked—and to visit the sick and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). The agape person has little or nothing to gain by helping these marginal people. The thrust of his/her agape love is giving, not getting.

“being of one accord” (v. 2b-3) (sympsychos). The Greek word sympsychos is a combination of two Greek words—sun or syn, which means “with” and psyche, which means “breath” or “life” or “the breath of life” or “soul.” Paul is calling these Philippian Christians to live in such unity that they share life and soul with each other.

“of one mind (v. 2b-4) (phronountes to hen). As noted above, phroneo can mean “focus your thoughts.”

The little Greek word hen (derived from the word heis) indicates some sort of singularity or unity. For instance, it can indicate the cardinal numeral “one”—a cardinal number being a number that specifies quantity rather than order. In other words, in this verse hen means “one,” as in “one thing”—not “one” as in “the first among many.”

Therefore, a valid translation of this phrase could be “focusing on one hen“—”focusing on one thing or one goal”—being “single-minded”—or even “looking together in one direction.”

One image that comes to my mind is a congregation looking at a screen at the front of the sanctuary on which the words of the scripture or hymn have been projected—their eyes and attention all directed in one place—on one thing.

But that isn’t where Paul is calling these people to focus. He wants them to focus on loving and serving one another—just as Christ lived to serve others (see verse 5ff.)

“doing nothing through rivalry” (eritheia) (v. 3a). The word eritheia was used to speak of partisan, unprincipled electioneering. The person who is guilty of eritheia is not only selfish, but probably doesn’t care who he/she hurts on the way to his/her goal. The eritheia person wouldn’t hesitate to break a few kneecaps or a few heads. Eritheia describes an ugliness of spirit that is likely to produce strife and injury. Of course, the person who is trying to model his/her life after Christ will want to avoid eritheia.

“or through conceit” (kenodoxian) (v. 3b). The Greek word kenodoxian comes from two words: Kenos means empty or vain or devoid of truth. Doxa means glory or splendor. Doxa is most often used to speak of the glory of the Lord, but it can be used for the glory of human achievement or the honors that accompany such achievement.

The word kenodoxian, then, means empty glory—vain glory—glory that has no basis in fact.

• We sometimes speak of people being “puffed up” or “full of air.” These are kenodoxian people.

• We use the phrase “empty suits” to speak of people who dress with authority, but have little of substance to offer. These are kenodoxian people.

• Jesus talked about scribes and Pharisees as “whitened tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). These were kenodoxian people.

“but in humility” (tapeinophrosyne) (v. 3c). The Greek word tapeinophrosyne is derived from the word tapeinos, which means lowly or humble or of low degree. Paul is calling the Philippian Christians to adopt a humble opinion of themselves—to willingly accept a lowly place.

High and low are relative words—they depend on our standard of measurement. Seven feet is high for a high jump, but is a short distance for a runner. In like manner, we might seem quite competitive if we measure our conduct and accomplishments against the standard set by other people in our community. However, if we measure ourselves against the standard that Christ set, our conduct and accomplishments will fall far short.

Paul’s call to humility runs counter to the advice that we hear so often today. “Be proud!” they say. “Be assertive!” “Don’t be a doormat!”

While there is sense in which that kind of advice belongs to the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God, there is another sense in which it is valid. Part of our problem is defining our terms. If by “pride” we mean arrogance or conceit, then pride is a kingdom-of-this-world value—sinful. But if we define “pride” as self-respect, that’s another matter. The scriptures say that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27)—a little lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:5). They tell us that God loves us (Luke 15:11 ff.; John 3:16; Hebrews 12:6; 1 John 4:8, 16b; Revelation 1:5), which gives us reason to regard ourselves with great respect. Where arrogance is a kingdom-of-this-world value, self-respect can be very much a kingdom-of-God value. The Apostle Paul, the author of the book of Philippians, certainly manifested self-respect. He was no one’s doormat. He was assertive in his preaching and his witness to Christ—behavior that often offended people and sometimes resulted in Paul’s imprisonment.

But, as we will see when we get to verses 5-8, Paul is calling on the Philippians (and us) to emulate the humility of Christ, who held the ultimate power card (being “in the form of God,” v. 6), but who emptied himself—taking upon himself the form of a slave “being made in the likeness of men” (v. 7)—even dying on a cross (v. 8). Was that masochism? No, definitely not! Christ died in obedience to the Father’s call (v. 8) for the purpose of saving the world and its people (John 3:16-17). That kind of self-sacrificial service is anything but masochistic.

When Paul calls us to be humble, he is calling us to emulate Christ, who had every reason to be prideful, but who instead pursued humility—humility with a purpose.

“each counting others better (hyperechontas) than himself (v. 3d). The Greek word hyperechontascombines hyper (above) and echo (to be), and means excellent or superior—something or someone that stands above the rest—a prize winner.

I must confess that I sometimes categorize people as “winners” or “losers.” It isn’t especially difficult to get into my “winners” column, but I think of drug addicts as “losers”—as well as people who sit all day at the shopping center entrance with a sign that reads, “Homeless. Will work.” Sure they will.

But Paul tells me not to do that. The people whom I might consider to be “bums” or “losers” were also created in the image of God, and God loves them as much as God loves me. Christ teaches me to call people “neighbors” instead of “losers”—and to love them as I love myself (Matthew 5:43; 19:19; Luke 10:27).

But the real driving force behind this verse, as we will see when we get to verses 5-8, is that we should emulate Christ, who though in the form of God was willing to empty himself and to come to Earth to bring salvation to people like you and me—people unworthy of his sacrifice. We didn’t deserve it, but Christ put us and our condition above his own. Now Paul calls us to obedience to God’s will in our relationships with our neighbors.

Just stop to consider what the world would look like if everyone were to treat other people as if they were equal to or better than themselves. It would certainly defuse lots of hostility, wouldn’t it!

each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others (v. 4). We didn’t deserve it, but Christ put us and our condition above his own welfare. Now Paul calls us to do the same in our relationships with other people.

Whenever we see this virtue practiced, we find our hearts gladdened and call the virtuous person heroic. An example would be a fire fighter who risks his/her life to enter a burning building to rescue a child. Another example would be a missionary—someone who could have had a comfortable position as pastor of a church, but who instead answered a call to serve in an uncomfortable foreign land.


5 Have this in your mind (Greek: phroneite), which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality (Greek: isos) with God a thing to be grasped (Greek: harpagmos), 7 but emptied (Greek: ekenosen from kenoo) himself, taking the form (Greek: morphe) of a servant (Greek:doulos), being made in the likeness of men (homoiomati anthropon). 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.

Many scholars have pronounced verses 5-11 an ancient Christian hymn. We have no way to know if the early Christians used it as a hymn, but we can see the loveliness of expression that would make it usable in that way.

“Have this in your mind (Greek: phroneite—from phroneo), which was also in Christ Jesus (v. 5). This verse serves as a bridge between verses 1-4 and verses 6-8—between what we think and what Christ thought.

Phroneo has to do with our understanding—our attitudes—our mindset.

This is the point toward which Paul has been moving through verses 1-4. He is calling us to emulate Christ Jesus, who committed himself to serving undeserving people at great personal cost. Without adopting Christ’s attitude, we could never accomplish what Christ wants us to do—to be united in mind, love, and accord (v. 2). We could never repeal the law of self-interest to put the other person’s interest first (vv. 3-4).

But it becomes possible for us to do these things once we have an example—once we see it done. That is what Christ Jesus has done for us. He has given us a visible example of a life of pure love—of pure service. He has shown us what it looks like—when someone puts aside his/her self-interest to do something for others. Even with his example always before us, we will never do these things perfectly well—but with God’s help we can get better and better at bringing our lives into congruence with Christ’s life—our attitudes into congruence with his.

“who, existing in the form of God” (v. 6a). This introduces the idea of the pre-existence of Christ. The clearest reference to Christ’s pre-existence is found in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made…. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14; see also 1 John 4:6).

Christ was in the form of God from the very beginning—before the creation of the world. Paul’s purpose in mentioning Christ’s pre-existence is to show us how much Christ had to give up to dwell among us. He gave up being God so that he might become a human baby. He gave up heaven to be born in a stable.

Consider that for a moment. Aren’t there moments when you would give your eye-teeth to possess God-like power! Well, Jesus had Godly power and splendor. He gave those up to come to Earth to die on a cross for our salvation.

“didn’t consider equality (isos) with God a thing to be grasped” (harpagmos) (v. 6b). This Greek word isos is also found in John 5:18, where the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he was calling God his father—and thereby “making himself equal (ison) with God”—i.e., claiming for himself Godly status and authority. Their error, of course, was their assumption that Jesus’ claim of Godly status and authority was false.

Christ did not count his Godly status and authority something to be exploited (harpagmos). The Greeks used the word harpagmos to speak of seizing a prize—or seizing booty—or grabbing and holding onto anything of value.

The point of this verse is that Christ did not consider his Godly status and authority something to be grasped for his own personal benefit. He understood their value, but was willing to sacrifice them in the service of a higher value—the salvation of humankind.

“but emptied (ekenosen from kenoo) himself (v.7a). The Greek word kenoo means to empty—or to make void in the sense of rendering a thing harmless or powerless.

We know what it means to empty something. To empty a pitcher, we must first have a pitcher that is full—or one that at least contains something. Then we must pour out the contents until the pitcher contains nothing.

Of course, scientists would protest that the pitcher would still contain air, and in most cases they would be correct. On first thought, I considered this to be an academic point having no application to Christ emptying himself. However, on second thought, it occurred to me that Christ—although in human form and fully human—continued to carry within him divine power. He was able to stop a storm in its tracks (Mark 4:39). He was able to heal people—and even to raise them from the dead (Luke 8:40-41, 49-56; John 11:1-44). That is why we speak of Christ as fully human and fully divine. So there is a sense in which Christ emptied himself, but retained something of Godly power.

To understand the full import of “emptied himself,” we must first start with what Christ was prior to his emptying—he was “in the form of God” (v. 6a)—equal with God (v. 6b). We must then look at what he became as a result of his emptying—he took on the form of a slave—took on the appearance of an ordinary man (v. 7b)—was born of an ordinary woman in an ordinary place in rather sub-ordinary circumstances. Who would expect the Son of God to be born in a stable and cradled in a manger? For that matter, who would expect the Son of God to die on a cross?

“taking the form (morphe) of a servant” (doulos) (v.7b). To take the form (morphe) of a servant means to take on the essential nature of a servant. He who was in the form of God took on the form of a servant.

The Greek word doulos means servant or slave. A gentler Greek word, diakonos, means servant but not slave. Diakonos is the word from which we get the English word deacon. Paul described himself and Apollos as diakonoi—”servants through whom you believed” (1 Corinthians 3:5). The point is that adiakonos (servant) enjoyed a considerably higher status than a doulos (servant or slave).

Christ did not divest himself of his Godliness to become a diakonos (servant) but a doulos (slave). He came from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. This was not a demotion forced on him from on high. He took it on himself voluntarily to serve the needs of humankind.

“being made in the likeness of man” (homoiomati anthropon—the likeness of men or humankind) (v.7b). The idea conveyed by homoiomati is that Christ was born looking like an ordinary baby—resembling an ordinary person. But as the church would later determine, Christ was both fully human and fully divine—God in human form. His resemblance to an ordinary man did not mean that he was, strictly speaking, ordinary.

Paul uses this word, homoiomati, in Romans 8:3, where he says that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” In that verse, Paul did not intend to say that Christ was a sinful man—but that he looked like an ordinary sinful man.

“And being found in human form, he humbled (etapeinosen—from tapeinoo) himself” (v. 7c-8a). See the comments in verse 3c above on the noun “humility.” Now in verse 8a, we have the verb “humbled” (tapeinoo). In this context, it means that Christ brought himself low—reduced himself to lowly circumstances—took a lower place than he could rightly have occupied.

“becoming obedient to (mechri—unto) death, yes, the death of the cross” (v. 8b). Christ went to his death willingly, but it was in obedience—the text doesn’t specify to whom. While it could have been obedience to his highest impulses, it was surely obedience to God the Father (Matthew 26:39; John 5:19; 8:28; Romans 5:19; Hebrews 5:8; 10:7).

This is the “stumbling block (Greek: scandalon) of the cross” (Galatians 5:11; see also Romans 9:30-33; 11:9)—that God would come into the world in human form and take upon himself the consequences for the sins of the world—that Christ would redeem us “from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13, a reference to Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

That was difficult for many people, Jew and Gentile alike, to believe in the days of the early church, and it is still difficult for many people to accept. It became the stumbling block over which many people stumbled on the way to the cross.

This would be especially difficult for the Philippian Christians. They were Roman citizens, and were therefore exempt from crucifixion—a punishment that could be exacted only on non-citizens.


9 Therefore God also highly exalted (Greek: hyperupsosen) him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord(Greek: kyrios), to the glory of God the Father.

“Therefore God also highly exalted (hyperupsosen—from hyperupsoo) him” (v. 9a). The word hyperupsoo combines two Greek words, hyper (high) and hupsoo (exalt). Therefore the two English words “highly exalted” translate one Greek word, hyperupsosen.

To be exalted is to be lifted up—raised high—praised.

Christ’s exaltation began with his resurrection, which attested to his power over death. That was followed by his ascension (his return to heaven) and his heavenly enthronement. His exaltation will culminate with his Second Coming, at which he will sit on his throne judging all the peoples of the world—separating sheep (those who are fit for God’s kingdom) from goats (those who are not) (Matthew 25:31-46; see also 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Revelation 20:11-15).

“and gave to him the name which is above every name (v. 9b). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name.

While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it.

Scholars debate whether the name above every name is Jesus or Lord:

• That it could be Jesus is supported by verse 10, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow….”

• That it could be Lord is supported by verse 11, “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….”

In that debate, the preponderance of scholarship seems to favor Lord. One reason is that Paul, in verses 10-11, uses wording from Isaiah 45:23, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath,” wording that was meant to describe the response to Yahweh, who was also known as Lord. By applying this Yahweh language to Jesus Christ, Paul is placing Jesus on a plain with Yahweh.

But there is no reason why we must choose between Jesus and Lord. Consider how hymns of praise to Jesus are sung all over the world today. Consider the many other tributes made to Jesus—and to Jesus Christ—and to the Lord Jesus. All three of those expressions, as well as others, point to the one man whose earthly name was Jesus—and whose messianic title was Messiah or Christ—and who was known in his own day as Lord (Mark 1:3; 2:28; 11:3; 12:36-37; 16:19-20), and is still known as Lord today.

“that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (v. 10a). As noted above, the wording of verses 10-11 is taken from Isaiah 45:23, which says, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath,” Paul also refers to this Isaiah 45 text in Romans 14:11.

The Isaiah oracle contrasts Yahweh, “who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it” (Isaiah 45:18)—with Babylonian idols, gods of wood who could not save (Isaiah 45:20). Yahweh said, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'” (Isaiah 45:22-23).

As noted above, by applying this Yahweh ascription to Jesus, Paul is placing Jesus on the same plane as Yahweh. That interpretation is supported by the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-14, 14; see also 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

The bowing of the knee, of course, is a sign of obeisance—deference—homage. It is the lesser person acknowledging the greater—the human acknowledging the divine—the creation acknowledging the creator. It shows submission to a higher power.

“of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth (v. 10b). Bowed knees shall acknowledge Christ’s divinity throughout the created order—in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth.

• The angelic host will sing his praises in heaven.

• People (and possible all living beings) will bow their knee on earth. This will include those who failed to acknowledge him during their lifetimes (or prior to his Second coming) but who will see him sitting on his divine throne and pronouncing judgment.

• “under the earth” could refer to those who have died and been buried.

“and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (kyrios) (v. 11a). In the Old Testament, God’s name was YHWH—Yahweh. The Jewish people, to avoid violating the commandment against using God’s name wrongfully (Exodus 20:7), used instead the word Adonai (Hebrew: adonay), which means “the Lord.” When the Jewish people translated their Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language (the translation known as the Septuagint or LXX), they translated the Hebrew word, adonay, into the Greek word, kyrios—so Jewish people were accustomed to using this Greek word, kyrios, to speak of God even though kyrios can also be used for human authorities.

The New Testament frequently uses kyrios to speak of Yahweh (Matthew 1:20, 22, 24; 2:13, 15; Mark 13:20; Luke 1:6; Romans 11:34, etc.). It also uses kyrios to apply to Jesus various Old Testament references to Yahweh (Mark 1:2-3; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 3:15-18). Paul links the lordship of Yahweh and Jesus with his words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Early Christians lived in an environment where people were expected to say, “Caesar is Lord.” While this was intended to designate Caesar as ruler over the Roman realm, it also tended to take on spiritual connotations—that Caesar was Lord in some sort of spiritual sense. Believing that Jesus is the one and only Lord, early Christians often refused to say, “Caesar is Lord”—and often died violently at the hands of the Romans as a result. In that time and place, to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” required faith and courage. Keep in mind that, as he writes these words, Paul is sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting the opportunity to stand before the emperor to defend the charges that led to his imprisonment. Nevertheless, he writes words that could be interpreted as subversive—that Jesus Christ is Lord.

“to the glory of God the Father (v. 11b). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various things—but is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.

Paul says here that confessing Christ’s lordship gives honor to God the Father. Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God. God the Father and God the Son are so inextricably linked that we can say that they (along with the Holy Spirit) are one. So to honor Jesus Christ is one way of honoring God the Father.


12 So then (Greek: hoste), my beloved (agapetoi), even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out (katergazomai) your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God who works in you both to will and to work,  for his good pleasure (eudokia).

“So then” (hoste) (v. 12a). The little Greek word hoste (therefore, so then) connects what went before with that which follows:

• WHAT WENT BEFORE was Paul’s appeal to the Philippian Christians to “let your way of life be worthy of the Good News of Christ, that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your state, that you stand firm in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the Good News” (1:27).

Paul then appealed to them not to be self-serving, but rather to model their lives after Christ Jesus, who “was in the form of God,” but who “emptied himself…, “becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross ” (2:6-7a, 8).

• THAT WHICH FOLLOWS is an appeal to obedience so that they might “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12)—along with the assurance that God is at work in them (2:13).

“my beloved (agapetoi) (v. 12b). Note how closely related this word agapetoi (beloved) is to the wordagape (love).

• Paul will use the word “beloved” (agapetoi) twice again in verse 4:1.

• He spoke earlier of his thankfulness and joy because of their “partnership in the Good News from the first day until now” (1:5).

• He rejoices in their prayers (1:19).

• He counts the Philippian Christians as “brothers, beloved and longed for, my joy and crown” (4:1).

• He reminds them that, unlike other churches, the Philippian church “sent once and again to my need” (4:16).

He is taking pains to remind the Philippian Christians of his affection for them and the affection they have expressed toward him.

Note that the NRSV uses the word “beloved” to translate adelphoi (which means brothers rather than beloved) in 1:12; 3:13; and 4:8.

“even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence(v. 12c). Note the similarity to 1:27, where Paul said, “whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your state, that you stand firm in one spirit.”

But the real emphasis of this verse is obedience, which Paul links to working out their salvation (v. 12d)—”even as you have always obeyed, …work out your own salvation….”

In this verse, Paul cites their obedience to him—but the obedience that really counts is obedience to God. Their obedience to Paul is significant, however, because he has always called them to faithful discipleship—obedience to God.

“work out (katergazomai) your own salvation (v. 12d). The Greek word katergazomai is a combination of kata (down from, according to) and ergazomai (to work, to do). Scientists today use the word erg (a unit of work), a word derived from a related Greek word.

At first glance, this appears to be an appeal to individual Philippian Christians to work out their personal salvation. However, that would fly in the face of Paul’s earlier appeal, where he called these Christians to count others better than themselves, “each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others” (2:3b-4).

This, then, must be an appeal to the congregation to work out the problems that plague it— envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition (1:15-17)—disunity and selfishness (2:2-3)—and vulnerability to “evil workers” who insist on “false circumcision” (3:2).

“with fear and trembling (v. 12e). The wording, “fear and trembling,” comes from Jeremiah 33:9 and Psalm 55:5, and is also found in the New Testament (Mark 5:33; 2 Corinthians 7:15; and Ephesians 6:5). While Paul uses the phrase, he didn’t invent it.

Fear is a common response to danger, and trembling is a common reaction to fear. The phrase, “fear and trembling,” can mean fear of God. There is something appropriate about that, just as there is something appropriate about fearing a high-tension electric line. Both are powerful, and it can be dangerous to approach either one in the wrong way.

But most of us don’t live in fear of God—or of high-tension electric lines. We know that we need both of them—that both can be good—that both are likely to be life-giving rather than life-threatening as long as we approach them with respect.

Sometimes people fear God because they have done something wrong and fear retribution, but “fear God” often means something entirely different—reverence and faith that lead to obedience. Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13). It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58). Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7). Fear is “the beginning of wisdom”—wisdom being the kind of understanding that enables a person to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences (Proverbs 9:10). It is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31). Fear of the Lord requires righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14). Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31). “Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness” (Psalm 33:18), so those who fear the Lord can sing:

“Our soul has waited for Yahweh.
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in him,
because we have trusted in his holy name.
Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh,
since we have hoped in you” (Psalm 33:20-22).

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (v. 13). Paul earlier expressed his confidence “that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Now he returns to that idea.

There is word play involved here. In verse 12, Paul said, “work out.” Now he says, that God is “works in.” The two are related by more than the word “work.” In verse 12, Paul called Philippian Christians to work out the problems that plagued them. In verse 13, he assures them that God is at work in them—giving them the ability to do what is needed.

“both to will and to work (v. 13b). As in this sentence, so in life, our will comes prior to our work. Good supervisors know that and try to motivate their employees to want to do good work. If the employees are “on board” with the mission, what would otherwise not be achievable becomes achievable.

Likewise in the spiritual realm the will comes first. If we want to do God’s will and to work for his good pleasure, we will find it possible to do so. However, if we approach God’s work reluctantly, not much of consequence is likely to happen (although there are exceptions, such as Jonah and the Ninevites).

“for his good pleasure (eudokia) (v. 13c). The Greek word eudokia combines eu (good) and dokeo (which has a variety of meanings, among which are “what seems good” or “what gives pleasure”).

What is God’s good pleasure? God’s good pleasure is blessing his people. The idea in this verse is not that God enables us to follow a set of onerous rules, but rather that God enables us to come into congruence with his good will for our lives, so that we become what he has created us to be.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan