When approaching the apostle Paul through his epistles, it is unquestionable that much of what he wrote poses interpretive issues. Even the Scriptures testify to this matter of interpretation, “As he [Paul] does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16, English Standard Version). Straight to the point, interpretation matters and not just any interpretation but the correct one, which raises the obvious question – what interpretation is the correct one? The answer is simply the one that communicates what the author originally meant at the time it was written. However, there are several things to consider during the process of interpretation such as the fact that modern readers are far removed from the author by time, culture, geography and language. All of these things are obstacles strewn on the path to proper interpretation. Fortunately, there are methods that enable the biblical-student to get closer to what the author originally meant – if not to the precise meaning itself. This paper will look at the exhortation found in the last line of Philippians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” with the purpose of understanding it the way the author (Paul) intended it to be understood. However, before even considering the passage, there is some preliminary work that must take place. First, the paper will very briefly discuss who the Philippians were. It will then examine the relationship between Paul and the Philippians. After which, the occasion(s) and circumstances that surround the letter will be discussed. This may appear, at first, unrelated to the passage being examined; however, fully grasping at what the author was communicating necessitates that the reader understands as much as possible. After all of this, the essay will consider the immediate contents of 2:12 within its proper literary context. Lastly, the paper will conclude with a contemporary reflection on Paul’s words in 2:12.

Philippi – City and Church

            Philippians is a personal letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church, which was located in the city of Philippi in Macedonia. Notably, it is the first church that Paul founded in Europe. The city was built in 358-57 B.C. by Philip of Macedon who fortified it and named it after himself.[1] By the time of Paul, Philippi had been long established as a Roman colony and consequently – as citizens of Rome, the people were entitled to protection by Roman law. This meant that the city was inhabited predominantly by Romans; however, many Macedonian Greeks and some Jews also lived there. 

            Luke reports in Acts that the first convert to Christianity in Philippi was a woman named Lydia (16:14). Notably, Lydia was a “God-fearing” person who took an interest in the ideals of the Jewish religion (16:14). That aside, upon hearing Paul preach the gospel, she was baptized (16:14-15) and from this formed the nucleus of the church at Philippi, which is evident where Luke reports that after Paul and Silas were released from prison they visited Lydia – who had apparently hosted a church inside her home (16:40). No doubt, this is where the foundations of Christianity where set in Philippi and from this point forward – the church at Philippi began to grow. That said, Paul has been invested in the church at Philippi from the very start (Phil. 4:15).

            Aside from Luke’s account in Acts, not much more is known about the composition of the church in Philippi.[1]However, names such as Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche and Clement – all mentioned in Paul’s letter and identified as members of this church (Phil 2:25; 4:2-3) – indicate that the church in Philippi was made up largely of Greeks.[2]Further, it should be noted that from its inception women played a prominent role in the church – even in its leadership, which is seen in the person of Lydia. 

            Considering the above, then, Paul clearly had a personal relationship with the church at Philippi. Notably, Paul’s care and concern for the church was reciprocated back to him. This is evident in the church sending Epaphroditus (2:25) as well as the gift that Paul received from them (4:17). Further, this communal relationship that Paul shared with them is captured in 4:10 where it reads “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity” (English standard Version). It is this very tone of personal rejoicing coupled with the tension of concern that is threaded throughout the entire fabric of the letter. Although Paul was separated from the church at Philippi, the two shared an ongoing relationship that consisted of rejoicing and concern for each other. It goes without saying, then, that this letter is very personal. 

Occassion and Purpose

            Right up front, there is an immediate circumstance that Paul was experiencing at the time he wrote this letter. After Paul offers up a prayer on behalf of the Philippians, he mentions his imprisonment (Phil. 1:13). That said, there are several proposals as to where Paul was in prison, which also addresses the letter’s origin and date. The proposals range from a Roman imprisonment; Ephesus; Corinth; and Caesarea imprisonment.[1]The Roman imprisonment is the one that has been traditionally agreed upon; however, one scholar notes that “Caesarea fits the evidence as well as, or perhaps better than any other theory of the letter’s provenance.”[2]As far as the dating of the letter: if Paul wrote from Rome (A.D. 60 – 63); if from Ephesus (A.D. 54-57); from Corinth (about A.D. 50); and Caesarea (A.D. 58-60).[3]All this aside, the immediate circumstance was that Paul was in prison awaiting an outcome that would be either death or full acquittal (Phil. 1:20). Undoubtedly, this was certainly on Paul’s mind while he was putting together this writing. 

            Although pressing, Paul’s imprisonment was not the only circumstance that the apostle was writing under and the letter itself reveals other occurrences. Martin points out that certain references in 1:27-30; 2:15; 4:1 contain hints that the infant church at Philippi, set in a pagan world was facing either present opposition or, at the least – opposition that was looming on the horizon.[1]This is clearly evident in 3:2, where Paul gives the warning to “look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” 

            The above points out some external issues that the church was to look out for; however, Epaphroditus, the messenger that was sent from Philippi (2:25), brought with him news that there was disunity occurring from within the church. On this, scholars have proposed that the occasion and the purpose of the letter revolves around Epaphroditus. Todd Still writes that “Philippians was occasioned by the gift the church sent to Paul via Epaphroditus, and latterly, by Epaphroditus’s return to Philippi. In sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul also sends a letter that, among other things, lauds Epaphroditus for his sacrificial service and thanks God for the Philippians’ protracted (financial) partnership in the gospel (note esp. 1:3-8; 2:25-30; 4:10-20).”[1]With the occasion revealed, Paul also takes this as an opportunity to address the disheartening news of disunity that Epaphroditus brought with him. 

            Previously mentioned, there is a tension that is threaded throughout the entire fabric of Philippians, which is rooted in certain fissures among the fellowship. The first hint of disunity occurs in 1:27, where Paul gives the exhortation to stand firm in one spirit, “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Granted, Paul is giving this warning against what appears to be foreign opposition; however, it cannot be denied that in this verse the apostle is concerned about the “inner-life” of the Christian community.[1]

            The second sign of disunity occurs only a few lines later in 2:1-2 only this time, rather than address foreign opposition, it is clear that Paul is now addressing the church from within. In other words, Paul is speaking directly to the inner-dissension that is causing the tension between the congregants. Paul’s words are worth pausing for: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:1-3).  Overall, the message to the Philippians here is to be unified in Christ, and with this – Paul reveals the main theological theme that will hold the Philippians together – that is, being unified in Christ. This theological element is the key to understanding 2:12, which the paper will arrive at shortly. 

            Before addressing the literary context of 2:12, a quick summary is in order. Up to this point, this paper has revealed that Paul founded the church in Philippi, which Luke writes about in Acts chapter 16. Additionally, Lydia, a worshiper of God, was the first convert in the city of Philippi and through her willingness to serve – she opened her house to others, which, in all essence – was a house-church. It is generally presumed that the church was made up largely of Greeks and that women played a significant role. From all of this, coupled with portions of the letter, it can be said that Paul had a close relationship with the church at Philippi. What is also known is that Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter; however, the specifics to the precise place and date are unknown. Further, the church at Philippi was experiencing both external and internal opposition – to which Paul addresses both at certain points in the letter. Lastly, a theological theme and motif that is key in understanding Paul’s message to the Philippians is the theme of being unified in Christ. 

With Fear and Trembling – 2:12

            Before jumping headlong into Philippians 2:12, the pitfall of examining the text without considering its literary context must be avoided. Simply put, Paul does not just come right out and say, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” and then leave it up to the recipients at Philippi to determine the meaning behind his words. Rather, Paul carefully works his way up to the exhortation so that when his readers (at Philippi) finally arrived at 2:12 – they will be able to fully grasp what he is communicating to them. 

            Paul begins 2:12 with the term ὥστε(hōste), which is typically translated as: so that, in order that, thus, -or- therefore. What is important to observe here is that it is a backwards pointing term, which means that in order to understand everything Paul is about to say, the reader must consider everything prior. Pointed out earlier, in 2:1-2, Paul is encouraging the church at Philippi to be unified in Christ and further, with these two verses the apostle began to address the inner-dissension that was occurring between the congregants at Philippi. However, in addition to stating that it would bring him great joy if they would all come together in Christ (2:2), Paul shifts the focus off himself and places it onto Christ as the model that they are to follow. 

            In 2:3-5, Paul begins to set up the Christ-Hymn that follows in vv. 6-11. He does this by first stating the goal and then reinforces his argument by looking at the character and person of Christ. Paul is very clear on his agenda, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:3-5). At this point, the modern reader must avoid the folly of trying to find a “moral-lesson” (that will come later), but instead place themselves inside the text. In other words, how would the congregants at Philippi receive these words of Paul? To emphasize, the reader must ask: why was Paul contrasting things like selfish ambition, conceit and one’s own interests – against the virtues of humility and counting others as more significant than yourself? On this, Müller proposes that “at Philippi they were acquainted with Judaizers who prided themselves on their observance of the law and circumcision, as well as with Greeks who found occasion for vainglorious self-exaltation in the wisdom of this world and the heights of their cultural attainments. Such, however, was not the Christian way.”[1]Müller’s proposal is clear; however, Müller seems to be addressing the opposition, of whom lay outside of the church rather than the inner-life of the church that Paul was clearly speaking to in these verses. In other words, Paul’s point here seems to be more directly related to a specific group within the church. Therefore, it seems more probable that some at Philippi were not counting others as more significant than themselves, but – in contrast, were only looking to their own interests. 

            After stating the agenda, Paul provides the Philippians with “the greatest possible incentive to unity and humility in the picture of the Lord himself whose attitudeis described in the noble verses which follow.”[1]In vv. 6-11, Paul appeals to a hymn, to which Martin provides the clearest statement, “Paul, by the citation of the hymn to Christ in verses 6-11, would show, in an unforgettable and convincing manner, that the community created by the incarnate and enthroned Lord must share his spirit, and be controlled by the pattern of self-effacement and humility which his incarnation and cross supremely display.” Notably, vv. 6-7 mirrors what Paul has been saying all along, that is – to be unified in Christ, but even further, with this hymn, Paul gives them both the reason why and the ultimate model to follow. With all of this in mind, Paul delivers his exhortation.

            Considering the above, Paul moves on to say, “my beloved, as you have always obeyed” (2:12a). With this, Paul is drawing directly from the Christ-hymn of vv. 6-11, which should be quite fresh on the hearts and minds of his recipients. Recall, that in the hymn, Jesus was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8). Paul is getting straight to the point in 2:12a, and is basically saying – just as He obeyed, so should you. He then, follows up with the exhortation: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12b). Without stopping, the apostle adds the explanation, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

At this point, a note on what Paul may mean by “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is necessary. When one pauses to consider everything prior to the exhortation (the theological theme of being unified in Christ, the humility and obedience of Christ, being other-person-oriented), it becomes clear that Paul desires for the people (not an individual) at Philippi to work out their issues between each other so that they can continue in the work that God has for them. This means that the term salvation is being used in a peculiar way in 2:12. Salvation here, is not in personal terms, “but in regard to the corporate life of the Philippian church. The readers are being encouraged to concentrate upon reforming their church life, ‘working at’ (Moffatt) this matter until the spiritual health of the community, diseased by strife and bad feeling, is restored.”[1]To strengthen this argument, since Paul is urging the Philippians to look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others, “the reference here must look back to 1:28, where the salvation of the Christian community as a whole is in view.”[2]Again, Paul is saying to the Philippians – work out your issues that are causing the inner-dissension within the church because they are holding you back from doing the true work of God, which is to serve Him. Granted, there are other interpretations on what Paul means in 2:12, which will be discussed soon enough, but this explanation provides the most continuity in relation to Paul’s flow of thought. 

            Paul continues to address the inner-dissension at Philippi with the follow up statement, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (2:14), which also supports the above interpretation. That said, the apostle is easier to understand here. A grumbling disputing people are not characteristics of how God desires His people to be seen by the world (2:15) When we grumble and dispute, it keeps us from accomplishing God’s will for His Church and to this point it is worth repeating, “we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul then returns to the idea of obedience and encourages them to hold fast to the word of life. Interestingly, Paul mentions that although his outcome may end in death – it is all for the work he has done in Christ, to which they both should rejoice. It is important to note, that Paul is not distracted by bringing attention to his situation rather his situation is another example of being other-person-oriented and unified in Christ, which are clear motifs in this letter. 

            Lastly, Paul closes out his exhortation with the hopes of sending two people to the church of Philippi who are living examples of what he has been pointing them toward (2:19-30). Both, Timothy and Epaphroditus do not seek their own interests but are other-person-centered just as Jesus Christ is. Timothy is compared to as a son with a father (a strong connotation of trust and training) and Epaphroditus who was both the messenger as well as a minister to Paul in a time of need. 

            In light of all the above, the overarching theme of Philippians chapter 2 is having the character of Christ, which is seen in being other-person-centered. Paul knows that this will not be easy for the people; however, he also knows that if they all seek to mirror the life of Christ – grumbling and disputes among them will be kept minimal. Therefore, everything in chapter 2 appears to be built around Paul’s exhortation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” 

Alternate Interpretations to 2:12b

            In addition to the interpretation that was proposed in the above section, it is important to know that there are other schools of thought surrounding what Paul may have meant with his exhortation in Philippians 2:12b. One alternative is given by Müller – who uses the term salvation in the traditional sense of being delivered or “saved” from the power and effects of sin.[1]Müller proposes the following:[2]

To ‘work out’ one’s own eternal welfare or salvation does not mean that man can or must work and accomplish it himself, for God does that (verse 13); but that the believer must finish, must carry to conclusion, must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle. The believer is called to self-activity, to the active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realization of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation.

For Müller, rather than speak to the whole of the church at Philippi, Paul switches gears and speaks to each individual. This interpretation does deserve attention; however, it neglects to fully involve the literary context in which the exhortation falls under, which addresses the whole of the church. Regardless, this is an alternative interpretation to the one presented in the body of this essay, which was proposed by Martin.  

            Throughout the history of the Christian Church, others have interpreted Phil. 2:12 in a similar way. John Chrysostom, during the fourth-century wrote, “For without fear no one can accomplish anything noble or remarkable. . . . If the goods of life cannot be attained without fear, how much more true is this of spiritual ones?”[1]With this, Chrysostom was addressing the reverential response of living in light of who God is. For Chrysostom, Paul was encouraging right behavior. Further, Augustine and Origen also interpreted Paul’s exhortation in light of right-behavior; however, they incorporated the idea that the ability to work out one’s salvation was solely determined by God, and “in that case we have not free will.”[2]Notably, right behavior would entail that they work out the issues that were causing the inner-dissension among them. Still, this perspective does not “directly” address the literary context of the passage. Regardless, aside from the interpretation presented in the body of this essay – there are alternative interpretations on 2:12. 

Contemporary Significance

            Although Paul’s exhortation was originally addressed to the church at Philippi, it has the same relevance for the contemporary Christian Church. Considering Philippians chapter 2 in its entirety, this paper has shown that the very thing holding Paul’s exhortation in 2:12 together is the theological idea of being unified in Christ. Like then, the modern Christian Church is not unaffected by inner-dissension, and it goes without saying that every now and again – Christians will grumble and dispute among themselves. That said, we must not look to Paul for a solution, but to Christ – to whom Paul ultimately points all Christians (2:6-11). In terms of salvation, we have received it in and through Christ; however, in terms of the phrase “to work out our salvation”  – we must always seek to honor Christ by looking to the interest of others and not only to our own. Simply put, we must be other-person-oriented, which will aid in our endeavor to be unified in Christ. This, of course, means that we must work out our issues, which have the propensity to keep us from accomplishing all that God has planned. To close, then, it is only appropriate to lean on Paul’s words once again, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). – ἀμὴν. 


Edwards, M J., ed. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999. 

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nded. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001. 

Foulkes, Francis.Philippians: New Bible Commentary. 21stCentury ed. Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. https://accordance.bible/link/read/IVP-NB_Commentary#15808

Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. 

Müller, Jac J. The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon: The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1983. 

Still, Todd D. Philippians & Philemon: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2011. 

End Notes

[1]. Gerald f. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 707.  [2]. Ibid., 708. [3]. Ibid. [4]. Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 20-39. [5]. Hawthorne, 711.  [6]. Hawthorne, 711.  [7]. Martin, 45.  [8]. Todd D. Still, Philippians & Philemon: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2011), 13.  [9].  Martin, 90; -also- Still, 14. [10]. Jac J. Müller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon: The New International Commentary on the New Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 75.  [11]. Martin, 103.  [12]. Martin., 119.[13]. Ibid., 120.  [14]. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1049.  [15]. Müller, 91. [16]. M J. Edwards, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 257. [17]. Ibid., 258.