Fear and Trembling

(Philippians 2:12-13)

By Gary Amirault

The King James Bible renders Philippians 2:12, 13 in the following manner:

“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. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12, 13 KJV)

The New International Version (which is currently the best selling English Bible translation) renders it very much like the KJV:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed -- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence -- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12, 13, NIV)

I cannot tell the reader how many times I have heard the Pharisaic spirit disguised as a minister of the gospel use this verse to instill fear into people warning them that this verse means that one can lose their salvation--that they had better walk a tight rope lest they fall into the unending fiery flames of hell. I have been told there is even a movie out entitled “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” which has this verse on a tombstone near the end of the movie. The movie is supposedly based upon a true story of a German girl, Annaliese Michel. I have not seen the movie, but I have a difficult time, based upon watching previous movies coming out of Hollywood believing that there is much “truth” in the movie. According to someone who watched the movie, there is a scene in which Mary, the mother of Jesus appears to this girl and is told that she can either come to heaven with Mary or suffer many terrible things here on earth which will lead many to salvation. She chooses to suffer. According to the person who told me about the movie, Annaliese Michel’s gravestone in German contains the Philippians 2:12-13 verse. The woman who watched this movie felt it would instill a great deal of fear in many people, especially Catholics.

When these darlings of darkness (preachers) quoted this verse to instill fear in me, I always wondered why one should fear God if in fact God was in me to work out His will in me. Why should I fear? Was He not going to turn all things to my good? (Rom. 8:28) I would think that I should actually jump up and down in excitement that the very creator of the universe chose to take up residence in me to bring about something for me that was for my very own good! I should be dancing, not trembling in fear. The translator of the delightful “New Testament in Modern English,” J.B. Phillips as well as other recent Bible translators apparently came to the same conclusion. He sought to solve this seeming contradiction. In his book, “Ring of Truth,” J.B. Phillips writes on pages 62 and 63:

"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 has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power and of love 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 cliche', 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'! (2 Cor. 7:15) Now this makes nonsense, 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." End quote

Based upon the above information, J.B. Phillips translated the verse as follows:

“…so now that I am far away be keener than ever to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and power to achieve his purpose.” (Phil 2:12, 13, New Testament in Modern English)

Now this translation makes me want to jump up and down with excitement and joy, not tremble with fear. Other recent translations have followed suit. Edgar J. Goodspeed’s “The New Testament: An American Translation” uses “reverence and awe.” So does Charles Williams’ in his New Testament. Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech has “labour earnestly.”

In many verses where the older and more archaic English translations like the King James Bible and the Geneva Bible taught us to “fear the Lord,” more accurate translations in more contemporary English are now telling us that we should be “revering the Lord.” (Compare the NIV and KJV at Deut. 8:6)


In one of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, a verse which in the traditional Masoritic read “fear the Lord” was found to read “LOVE the Lord.” The scroll is named 4Qdeutn, and is over a thousand years older than the Masoritic texts that have traditionally been relied on as the source for the Old Testament text. (Source: “The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) I believe the next generation of translations will bring us from “revering the Lord” to actually loving Him.

It seems Isaiah was far more prophetic than we realize when he wrote:

“...this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and THEIR FEAR TOWARD ME IS TAUGHT BY THE PRECEPT OF MEN.” (Isaiah 29:13)

Jeremiah, the prophet, tried to warn us about what the elders of Judaism and the leaders of the church would do to draw men away from God towards themselves:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8, NIV)

I believe that future translations of the Bible will remove the tarnish that the lying pens of Jewish and Christian scribes have heaped upon the image of God, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. When this happens, I believe that the Holy Spirit will once again fall upon His people in such power as to change the world forever.

Copyright 2006 Gary Amirault

Bible Matters is the intellectual property of Gary Amirault. Bible Matters may be copied for personal use and passed on to others provided it is not used for commercial use.

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