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Philippians 2:12-18: Solidarity, Shame, Sacrifice

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

So then, friends, just as you've always obeyed (not only in my presence but now much more in my absence), work out your salvation with fear and dread. For it is Deity who works in you both the motivation and the ability to do what pleases him. Do everything without grumbling or disputation, so that you may be blameless and guileless -- faultless children amid this twisted and warped generation, among whom you shine like the stars in orbit. Hold on dearly to the Word of Life, so that in the Day of Christ I may boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain. But if I am poured out as the sacrifice for your faithful worship service, then I rejoice, I rejoice with all of you. At the same time, you rejoice, rejoice with me.

___ Translation Comments
1. This is the first time agapetoi appears here. This word has been variously rendered "beloved," "dear friends," etc. Honestly, I have no strong argument one way or the other, but I am inclined to think of it as "friend."
2. "Fear and dread." This is the same pair of words used in Genesis 9:2 for the "fear and dread" that falls upon all the beasts who are now in submission to humanity. I'm thinking he's purposefully using those words to refer to Genesis 9:2.
3. "the motivation and the ability." Literally, "Deity is working in you both the to will and the to work." Since the infinitives are being used as nouns (the article substantizes), it's best to translate them as nouns.
4. "Deity." I'm going on a limb here. Paul's point is not identifying specifically that it is the entity known as God who is doing the work. His point is that the worker is divine, and therefore powerful. To be technical, I'm saying that theos is a qualitative noun here rather than definite. It's also emphatic because it's out in front.
5. "Do everything without..." this is tricky to translate. I chose, like most translations, to translate this literally. The problem with this is, it's bad English. Good English would instead say "do nothing with..." However, "do nothing" implies a passivity that this passage won't allow. It just said that God's working in us the ability and motivation [to work], so we can't just "do nothing." If I were to paraphrase Paul here: "Do everything -- and let none of it be done with..."
6. "blameless and guileless -- faultless children..." Guileless is an unusual word, but all three of them in Greek fit the pattern of -less or un-. The goal of this literary translation is to preserve both meaning and poetry. Note also that "blameless and guileless" is one statement, and "faultless children amid this..." is a second thought that expands on the first one. It's difficult to show on paper when someone is doing that, but I hope the punctuation does it well enough.
7. "twisted and warped." These words are a good modern update for "crooked and perverse."
8. "stars in orbit." This phrase could also mean "lights in the world." The double-entendre is purposeful.
9. "Hold on dearly to the Word of Life." Hold the Word of Life intensely close. The difference between this word and simply holding something is like the difference between wearing your wedding ring and simply keeping it in the attic somewhere. The preacher in me is tempted to translate this as "Hold on to the Word for dear life," but that's a bit of a stretch.
10. "As the sacrifice for your faithful worship service." I'm going out on a limb here. Rendering it this way makes it clear that Paul is poured out (as a drink offering) without me inserting the words "as a drink offering" for clarification. Faithfulness unto death seems to be a theme here, so "faithful" fits, and "worship service" works decently for leitourgia.
11. "I rejoice, I rejoice with all of you. At the same time, you rejoice, rejoice with me." The emphasis is on "you" in the second statement. I'm thinking the verbs in the second half are both commands to rejoice and rejoice with him. I couldn't render this verse without it looking redundant in English, and that's because it's redundant in Greek. Redundancy is not useless; Paul has his reasons.

____ Commentary
The main word connecting this passage to the previous one is the word "obey." Christ's death (loss) brought gain. Now regardless of whether Paul is present or absent (i.e. lives or dies), the Philippians must work out their own salvation "with fear and dread." Due to its use in Genesis 9:2, I am inclined to think that "fear and dread" refers to submission to authority -- specifically God's authority, since he is the One working in them.

So, they must do everything they can -- and none of that with grumbling or disputation. These were the problems in the Exodus. Grumbling about lack of meat. Disputing Moses' authority. These two problems break unity, and unity (which includes submission to authority) is the very thing Paul has been trying to encourage throughout this chapter.

If the Philippians continue their work without grumbling, then they will be pure and innocent. This is practically synonymous with the words in 1:10. Just like stars in orbit are tiny oases of light scattered in a desert of darkness, so too are we amid this totally fallen and depraved generation. The reason the generation in the Exodus was "twisted and warped" is because they were disobedient and did not hold on dearly to the Word of Life. It is conforming to the example of Christ that will allow us to shine. It is God who works in us both the motivation and the ability to shine.

Pride makes an appearance now. Paul wants them to prosper, so that he may be proud rather than ashamed in the Day of Christ. This pride, this boast, is a type of vindication or salvation for Paul. Throughout this letter, his thoughts hum with the question: "Am I a faithful servant?" His "boast" in the Day of Christ is this: when he sees Jesus face to face again, he wants Jesus to answer that question with an emphatic "yes, Saul. You have." And then, he will break down crying in sweet relief. Paul is motivated by an intense desire to serve, and nothing less will satisfy his godly motivation. Paul in Philippians is slowly redeeming the concept of boasting. Whereas we generally boast out of strife and selfish ambition, Paul shows us how to boast out of godly motivation instead. Of course, the boast is completely future-oriented and nobody may boast now. Only in the Day of Christ.

In verses 17 and 18, Paul switches seamlessly into the language of sacrifice. Sacrifice ties together the themes of death and worship. As Paul thought of the Day of Christ in verse 16, his mind inevitably drifted back to the topic of his own death as a martyr. If he dies a martyr's death, then he does so for the benefit of the Philippians. He envisions execution by the Romans as if it were a Temple service in which he is the lamb offered for the Philippians. Not that he takes away their sins, mind you, but he brings them benefit by setting an example for them.

At the same time, he wants them to rejoice in having an example from Paul. Yes, he even wants them to "rejoice" in his death, because death to him is gain (1:21). No doubt it was with a heavy heart that he told them to rejoice. The joy in Philippians is a mix of emotions, suffering today but worshiping with joy because of the vindication on the Day of Christ. Philippians is not a book for when everything is going right. It is a book for persevering when everything is going wrong. Everything will be made right.


  1. WoundedEgo


  1. Gary

    Yeah. That's one word I'd use for where stars are. Saying "outer space" in the Bible just feels wrong, or even just "space." I was translating at the phrase level rather than the word level there. And it's a work in progress.

    What are your thoughts for or against that reading?