Fear and trembling – a saying not to be translated literally

There are 4 places in the New Testament where the phrase fear and trembling occurs. They are:

  1. Mark 5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.
  2. 2 Cor 7:15-16 And his [Titus] affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling.
  3. Eph 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,
  4. Phil 2:12-13 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

In particular with the Philippians verse, we like to expound the truth as if fear and trembling means what the English translation would mean. This is quite hard as the word trembling means quaking with fear. Terrified would be about the strength of it’s literal meaning. In England we would say ‘wetting yourself’. A convenient example of a saying that isn’t to be taken literally.

Could this be a biblical truth about how we relate to our God and his salvation?

Lets look at the other three scriptures and ask whether this translation can be correct.

2. Titus – is it credible that his hearers were terrified of Titus? I think we can safely say no.

3. Slaves, how would they obey their masters? Sure the master may beat them and harm them, but they don’t need to be told to be scared of a beating, so it cannot mean that. Could it mean respect and/or submissiveness? That would make sense and I think it is credible that fear and trembling as a saying meaning having a respectful or submissive attitude.

1. The woman who has just been healed after 12 years. Would she be terrified of what Jesus was going to do to her? Nervous maybe. Maybe shy. Maybe not wanting publicity. But I also think that terrified would be too strong a description of her emotions then and the respectful and submissive could well be accurate.

So why does this matter? Because the Philippians verse is about the outworking of our faith and salvation and if it were true that it would mean we’re almost walking on eggshells (another saying not to be translated literally) scared of getting it wrong. That would be against the whole tenor of the New Covenant.

However, my current best guess at what Jewish people meant when they said fear and trembling seems a translation of the Philippians verse that is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.



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