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Work Out Your Salvation

In this 7 minute podcast I cohosted at Wheaton College . . .

Dr. Douglas Moo, Kenneth T. Wessner Professor of New Testament, considers how best to understand and translate the clause often translated as “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).wheaton-magazine_august-2017-103036-200x225

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A Tale of Two Translations

Dr. Seth Ehorn, Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, discusses differences between translations of Philippians 2:4. Are we to set aside our own interests as we look to the interests of others? Or, should we consider our own interests as well as the interests of others?Seth Ehorn

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The Philippian Hymn–Phil 2.5-11

For Paul, the story of Jesus provided the greatest example of what this humility looked like when it was embodied in a life.  He found that story told powerfully and succinctly in an early Christian hymn.   No other passage in the NT has been studied more thoroughly.[1]    Given the poetic, parallel structures and its unusual wording, the hymn was likely a preformed tradition that Paul incorporated into his letter.  Exactly who wrote it, for whom and when are questions worthy of speculation but unlikely to bring certainty.  The fact that Paul included this preformed tradition in his letter to the Philippians indicates his complete agreement with its theology.  Even if Paul didn’t write it, he did agree with it.humble Jesus


Paul earnestly desired for the “mind” of Christ to shape the lives and community in Philippi.  He sets up Jesus as the lordly example of humility and selfless service.  The hymn is constructed around two movements: (1) the descent (katabasis) from equality with God to the humiliation of the cross and (2) the ascent (anabasis) from death to exaltation/ resurrection by God and universal acclamation by all creatures.  The descent can be graphically portrayed (2:6-8):

Though he was in the form of God

He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped

He emptied himself

Taking the form of a servant

Becoming in the likeness of men

Being found in form as a man

He humbled himself

Becoming obedient to death

Even death on a cross


Likewise the ascent (2:9-11)


To the glory of God, the Father

“Jesus Christ is Lord”

Every tongue confess that

(of heavenly, earthly and subterranean beings)

Every knee shall bow

So at the name that belongs to Jesus

And bestowed on him the name above every name

Therefore God highly exalted him



There are a number of interpretive schemes for unraveling the meaning of this hymn.  James Dunn notices the number and the sequence of Scriptural allusions to Adam and concludes that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 is “the fullest expression of Adam Christology in the NT” (cf. Heb 2:5-9).[2]  In particular he notes that Adam is made in image of God (cf. Gen 1:27) and is tempted to grasp at equality with God (cf. Gen 3:5).   The first man fails, of course, and becomes an obedient slave to corruption and death.  Ultimately, in Jewish tradition Adam is glorified.  For Dunn and other interpreters, Jesus provides the converse of Adam, particularly in that the second Adam did not try to grasp for equality with God (something He did not have).  Rather He emptied himself and humbled himself by being willing to die a criminal’s death on the cross.  Given other Adam-Christ typologies in Paul, there may well be a subtle allusion to Jesus as a new Adam who reverses the curse of Adam’s sin.  But this does not cover the interpretive canvas.


Michael Gorman suggests that the humiliation-exaltation pattern in the hymn is based upon a similar pattern found in the fourth servant song (Isa 52:13—53:12).  Although he does not discount other options, he believes the Christ hymn would have been patterned after and read according to the final servant poem augmented by Isa 45:23.  Isaiah’s servant song depicts the Servant of YHWH

  • exalted and lifted up (Isa 52:13)
  • despised and reject (53:3)
  • pierced for our transgressions (53:4)
  • led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7)
  • cut off from the living (53:8)
  • he will see light (53:10)[3]
  • God allots him a portion with the great (53:12)


The humiliation and exaltation pattern in the fourth Servant poem does appear to provide further background for understanding the model for the Christ hymn.


One of the important interpretive questions we find in the text has to do with the meaning of the phrases “existing in the form of God” and “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Most scholars take these as a reference to the preexistence of Christ.  Prior to his entrance into the world, he existed in the form of God.  Nevertheless, he decided not to hold onto his equality with God.  Instead he emptied himself and became a human being.  According to this construal, the hymn is a statement of the preexistence and incarnation of Christ, a divine person.  But not all agree that the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ occurs so early.  As we have seen, Dunn interprets this as an allusion to Adam made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and seeking to become “like God” by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:5).  Accordingly, these phrases should not be read as referring to the preexistence or incarnation of Christ.


Again, while a subtle allusion to Adam is possible, some form of preexistence is clearly in view from one who was in the form of God and who became man.  If he had to become “man,” he was not “man” before.  There is no reason to conclude the Christ hymn does not assume the preexistence of a divine being who subsequently became the man we know by the name “Jesus.”  Yet the hymn is silent on the salient points we are interested in.  Some have tried to flesh out the extent of the self-emptying by naming which attributes he gave up on his journey toward the cross.  But this is more reading into (eisegesis) than reading from (exegesis) the text.  At the end of the day the decision to lay aside equality, empty himself and humble himself had only one thing in view: the cross.


As a result of his faith obedience, God super-exalted the crucified Jesus and gave him the name above every name (2:9).  Some, inspired more by our hymnody and praise choruses than Scripture, have wrongly concluded that “the name above every name” is the name “Jesus.”  But Jesus was a common name then and now.  It can hardly be a candidate for the name above every name.  The genitive case “Jesus” in 2:10 is best taken as a possessive genitive, i.e., at the name that belongs to Jesus.  Three things are certain about the “name”: (a) it is a name bestowed upon him in the exaltation-resurrection; (b) it is a name above every name; and (c) it is a name that belongs to Jesus.  So what is the name?  Given all we know from the hymn and given the reverence accorded the name of God in Hebrew Scriptures, the name must be LORD (kyrios), God’s holy, unspeakable name (Hebrew, YHWH).  In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, kyrios (translated “Lord” in most versions) consistently renders the divine name, a name so holy it was protected by one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:7).  This conclusion is assured by the universal acclamation of all heavenly, earthly, and subterranean creatures.  When the name that belongs to Jesus is expressed: “every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11, alluding to Isa 45:23).  These phrases belong to one of the most significant monotheistic passages in the Old Testament and refer originally to the worship of YHWH.[4]  Paul has deliberately taken scriptural language regarding the veneration of Israel’s one God and applied it to the risen Jesus.  This is a remarkable appropriation of God’s name and worship addressed to Jesus.  As Larry Kreitzer noted: “it is difficult to imagine any first-century Jew or Christian even remotely familiar with Isa. 45 hearing this final stanza of Phil 2.9-11 without recognizing that words of theistic import have now been applied to Jesus.”[5]  Despite this, for Paul, the unique identity of God, including his name, and his exclusive right to worship are not threatened by the universal acclamation of Jesus as “Lord.”  Since the Father has bestowed upon the crucified Jesus His name, the apostle understood that the worship of Jesus by all creatures brought glory to God and fulfilled His will.



Working through Philippians: Chapter 4

Here is my final installment on Philippians.  I started working through it a few weeks back and offering some interpretive suggestions.  If you want to go deeper take a look at one of the quality commentaries you can find on Philippians.Rediscovering Paul cover

Philippians ch. 4

Paul concluded the letter to the church at Philippi with a number of exhortations and a “thank you” for a financial gift.  Apparently, two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, had had a particularly nasty falling-out.  News of it traveled to Paul in prison.  He called upon them to lay aside their disagreements and to have the same mind (reiterating his earlier call in 2:2).  He asked the church to help them as well since it had a vested interest in their split.  Other exhortations include:

  • Stand firm in the Lord (4:1)
  • Rejoice in the Lord (4:4)
  • Become famous for your gentleness with each other (4:5)
  • Do not worry, instead pray and give thanks in everything (4:6-7)
  • Keep your mind on excellence, goodness and truth (4:8)
  • Do what you have seen and heard from me [Paul] (4:9)

Paul waited until the end of the letter to thank the Philippians for their recent gift.  It gave him an opportunity to write about the contentment he had learned through his many ups and downs.  In any and every situation, he wrote, he had learned to be content.  For one so used to hardship and prison contentment was an important virtue.  He knew that lack of contentment was the root of all sorts of evil.  Lack of contentment led to coveting, stealing, adultery, murder and a host of other personal and social failures.  Contentment, on the other hand, led to peace and joyful satisfaction.  We note two things he said about contentment.  First, Paul had to “learn” contentment in the rugged situations life.  As a learned skill it is not innate or natural.  We might even say that discontent is the normal condition of man.  Second, Paul found he could be content in any situation through the power of Christ.[1]  Clearly the secret of contentment was not in himself; it was in the Lord.

In his contentment Paul acknowledged the kindness of their gift without admitting his need.  In fact he turned the gift around to their credit.   The gift sent by Epaphroditus was “a sweet-smelling aroma, a welcome sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (4:18).  Because they have been willing to meet Paul’s needs, the apostle promised that “my God” would supply every need of theirs according to his own riches (4:19).  The letter ends as it began with a prayer-wish that the grace of the Lord Jesus would be with them.  For Paul grace is the beginning and end of the Christian walk.

[1] Unfortunately many translations miss the point in Phil 4:13.  Note particularly, the NASV: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  The context is contentment not “doing.”  The passage is better rendered: “I have strength to be content in every situation through the one who empowers me.”

Jesus as “lordly example”

(I’m grateful to Larry Hurtado for the expression “lordly example”)

Philippians 2:12–3:21

The lofty thoughts of Jesus’ universal acclamation (Philippians 2:9-11) did not hijack Paul’s original intent which was to set Jesus as the lordly example of humility and self-sacrifice.  He continued to drive the point home by appealing to the examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself.  They have actualized the mind of Christ as their own life-stories will show and serve as examples for the church to imitate.Rediscovering Paul cover 

Implicit within the story of Jesus’ humiliation, incarnation, exaltation and acclamation is the promise that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  This teaching is certainly consistent with what we find elsewhere in the NT.   Nevertheless, the exaltation of the humble followers presents no counterpart, even remotely, to the universal acclamation of the Lord Jesus.  Still, even without developing the point, believers are left to ponder how God will exalt them for their humble obedience. 

The only proper response in the face of so lordly an example is obedience, “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12).  This does not mean, of course, that people can save themselves; it means they cooperate with God’s transforming energy in them.  They work without grumbling so their light can shine in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (2:14-15).  They hold on to the “word of life” now so that in the day of Christ (at the parousia) Paul can be proud (2:16).  After all, their apostle may be poured out as a libation on the altar, facing obedience unto death sooner rather than later. 

Timothy and Epaphroditus provided Paul with good examples of faithful followers who exhibited the mind of Christ.  Paul hoped to send Timothy soon to Philippi.  Like Jesus before him, Timothy was genuinely concerned about the Philippians’ welfare (2:20-21).  While others were watching out for themselves, Timothy would seek the good of Christ and his church.  Epaphroditus too had nearly died for the work Christ.  He had risked his life to serve Paul on behalf of the Philippians (2:29-30).  Now the apostle was going to send him back with his sincere thanks in hope they would receive and honor him. 

Paul next turned to his own life as an example of one who had “the mind of Christ.”  Following a warning against the threat of false teachers (“dogs,” “evil workers,” “the mutilators,” likely referring to the mutilation of the flesh in circumcision), the apostle claimed that Christ-believers were in fact the true circumcision (3:1-3).  After all they worship God in the Spirit, boast in Christ Jesus and place no confidence in the flesh.  It was this last remark, “no confidence in the flesh” that prompted Paul’s discourse on his own past.  Prior to his Christophany, Paul had quite a resume and enjoyed a number of bragging rights: (1) circumcised as per the Law on the eighth day; (2) from God’s covenant people; (3) from the important tribe of Benjamin; (4) a conservative, Hebraist Jew; (5) from a prestigious sect, the Pharisees; (6)  practiced “zeal” against the church; and (7) blameless under the Law regarding righteousness (3:4-6).  The pre-Christian Paul enjoyed a status nearly all would have envied.  But like the pre-incarnate Christ, he emptied himself of those gains and wrote them off as losses for the sake of Christ (3:7).   Indeed, he suffered the loss of all things and considered them “dung” compared to the excellence of what it meant to “know Christ” and be found in Him (3:8-10).  To “know Christ” implies intimacy and a knowledge based on experience.  It is knowledge of a person not knowledge about a thing.  The upshot of his own Christ-patterned humility meant that he left behind a law-based righteousness for the faith-based righteousness of God made possible through the faithfulness of Christ’s obedient sacrifice on the cross (3:9).  As Paul identified completely with the humiliation and death of Jesus, he expected also to share in his exaltation/ resurrection (3:10).  In that sense, Paul’s own story would be absorbed one day into the wider story of Christ. Paul

Although Paul had journeyed deep into the knowledge of Christ, he had certainly not arrived at his final destination.  So he pressed on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  To do so he had to forget his past, namely, the “exalted” status he formerly enjoyed, and stretch out toward the future.  Those who wish to move toward perfection in the Christian life need not look back. 

Paul invited the Philippians to join him in imitating Christ and to pay attention to those, like Timothy and Epaphroditus, who present a model for how to walk.[1]  They are not to follow the example of those who lives as “enemies of Christ.”  Their destiny is not exaltation with Christ but destruction and shame because their mind is not the humble mind of Christ.  Their mind is set on earthly things (3:18-19).  Genuine believers understand their citizenship is in heaven; they belong to another city.  As “resident aliens” they are not at home in the world; instead they wait patiently for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Christian churches of Paul stand therefore as an alternative community in the world.  They do not look to Rome for guidance; they look to heaven.  They do not worship Caesar as Lord; they worship the Lord Jesus.  They expect only small benefits from any so-called earthly saviors; they wait ultimately for a Savior from heaven who will transform the world with power beyond this world.  Those who pattern their lives on the story of the Christ’s humiliation and exaltation can expect their humbled bodies to be transformed in conformity with the body of His glory.   As the apostle looked the future, the Christ hymn continued to echo in his inspired imagination.  We note here the following correspondences:

  The humiliation of Christ (2:6-8) –>the body of our humiliation (3:21)

  The exaltation of Christ (2:9) –>transformed to the body of his glory (3:21)

  The universal acclamation (2:10-11)–> the subjection of all things (3:21)

Clearly the Christ hymn provided Paul with more than a pattern for humble service to others; it also provided the (implicit) promise that believers who enter into his humiliation will also enter into his glorious exaltation (3:20-21).

[1] The imperative in 3:17 is difficult to translate.  It means either “join together in imitating me” or “join me in imitating Christ.”  Both are possible since Paul clearly urged believers to imitate Christ elsewhere and he also encouraged others to imitate him as one who imitates Christ (see Eph 5:1; 1 Thess 1:7; 1 Cor 11:1; cf. Phil 4:9).

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