I learned from another question that Paul uses the same Greek words for fear and trembling (phobos and tromos) in Philippians 2:12 as found in the Septuagint in Psalms 2:11 and 55:5, and it is very likely he was referencing this when he wrote Philippians.

Similarly (though not the same exact Greek phrase), in Mark 5:33, the woman healed of her discharge of blood "came in fear and trembling" (ESV) after Jesus perceived power had gone out from him.

Others have asked what working out one's salvation means; I would like to focus on what exactly it means by these two words, fear and trembling.


5 Answers 5


Paul's text about "working out your salvation with fear and trembling" in Philippians 2:13 is actually more likely about reverent, obedient awe rather than being terrified of judgment. I conclude this for three reasons:

  1. Paul uses phobos kai tromos (fear and trembling) elsewhere to mean "reverent obedience": Look at 2 Corinthians 7:15 where Paul describes how impressed Titus was when he visited the Corinthians: “And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with phobos kai tromos.” Here, the phrase definitely means obedient reverence. In Ephesians 6:5 Paul says: "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with phobos kai tromos, in the sincerity of heart, as to Christ." This phrase could be about being terrified, but that doesn't really make sense in the context. It really seems to be more likely about great respect.

  2. The phrase "fear and trembling" has a wider connotation than just "terror," because word "fear" in Hebrew was also the word for "awe" or "reverence." "Fear" could also denote the physical act of worship, hence the fact that the "God-fearers" in the NT were those who worshipped God. "Fear and trembling" is likely a hendiadys, an idiom in which a verb is intensified by being linked by "and" to a synonym. We have them in English too. If you're "sick and tired," this doesn't mean you're sick and you're tired, it just means that you're very tired. Similarly, "fear and trembling" seems to mean "great reverence" as Paul is using it in the passages noted above.

  3. Coming back to Philippians 2, the passage starts out by Paul praising the congregation for how obedient they were in his presence. Now, Paul is exhorting the Philippians to do even more in his absence, because God is doing a "good work in you." Reading phobos kai tromos as about reverent awe fits better here than as being in terror of hell, which is not on Paul's mind otherwise in this very positive context.

Of course, reading this Philippians 2 this way doesn't negate other places in the NT which talk about fearing God's judgment. It's just not what Paul is talking about here.


I am not near as thoughtful as the rest of you. I do love this forum and learn a lot. That being said, 2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6:5 do say fear. I just do not understand why we always have such a problem with fear and so quickly want to couch that around something more comfortable. I read somewhere that it says 365 times in the bible, "Do not fear....", and I think it is a Fear of God that allows us to have a fear of nothing else. Even if we say "reverential fear" we still are talking about fear.


Perfect love casts out fear. So surely we’re not talking about the same type of fear. Christ delivered us from the fear of death. It surely doesn’t mean that we had reverence for death. It shows that there are clearly at least two different notions of fear in the Scriptures. One that means terror and the other that mean reverence. It depends of the context.

Since we were delivered from eternal death and separation from God, we do not need to be scared of Him rejecting us.

People with a law-based mindset always have an expectation of evil, or bad things happening, or God hitting them whenever they do wrong. Which is an erroneous concept

  • So, here it's important to look into the Greek words used by Paul, then based on what you find, take a shot at interpreting what Paul might have meant and why he chose the words he used considering who he was writing to and what he might have been worried about.
    – Dieter
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 7:02
  • I might almost have up-voted this answer but it does, as commented above, need to be substantiated with textual (and possibly Greek) references.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 15:43

An analogy, though not perfect, that I think of regarding "fear" of the Lord is my "fear" of the Sun. I love the Sun. It gives us life, plants, oxygen, warmth, weather, etc. But I also "fear" the Sun. I don't look at it. I don't stand too long in its presence. I wear sun screen and use an umbrella when going to the beach. I guess you could say, when it comes to spending the day at the beach, "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Sun."

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    – agarza
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 3:39

The word translated as fear in the Old Testament tends to mean afraid when it’s in a moral context; for example, in Genesis 18 Lot is afraid to live in the area where Sodom was destroyed.

But it tends to mean reverent when it’s in a context of how one reacts to a person in authority or to God. For example, Exodus 22 where God tells Aaron and Miriam to stop complaining about Moses; instead they should respect him as God’s anointed prophet.


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