During my tenure at Zondervan Publishing, I have worked with a number of evangelical scholars developing a large number of top-notch resources on biblical languages, from first year to advanced Greek and Hebrew. One of the ongoing concerns I and the authors I have worked with have is that those who have spent hours learning biblical languages all too often let them fall by the wayside in the midst of busy church activities. Here I take a passage of Scripture in which the knowledge of biblical languages enriches the passage with insights that cannot be derived from an English translation.
For example, whenever you prepare to preach on a passage of Scripture, it is always good to check the default translation your church uses over against the original Hebrew and Greek to see how the translators have handled the various grammatical constructions of that verse. Don’t hesitate to ask whether they have gotten it right; scholars do that all the time in commentaries.
Some time ago I had occasion to study Philippians 2:12. The NIV translates it this way: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Most modern translations have something similar. In the Greek New Testament this verse contains two verbs: ὑπηκούσατε (hypēkousate), translated “you have … obeyed,” and κατεργάζεσθε (katergazesthe), translated “continue to work out.” There is also a negative word μή (mē; actually, it is occurs in the correlative phrase “not only … but now”).
You may remember from your first-year Greek classes that the Greek language has two negative words: oὐ (ou) and μή (mē). The former is used with indicative verbs; the latter with verb forms such as the subjunctive, imperative, and infinitive. Now hypēkousate is an indicative verb, whereas katergazesthe is an imperative. That strongly suggests that the “not only … but now” construction belongs with the imperative “continue to work out” rather than with the indicative “you have … obeyed.”
In other words, in this text Paul’s emphasis is not first of all to congratulate the believers in Philippi for doing such a great job obeying the commands of the Lord. They may have indeed been doing that, but that is not his focus. Rather, the apostle is encouraging them—maybe even commanding them in a mild sort of imperative—to live their lives as followers of Christ whether or not Paul is in their midst.
Perhaps we can look at it this way. In a number of New Testament passages, Paul asserts that he considers himself as a father to those whom he has led to the faith (see 1 Cor. 4:14–15; 2 Cor. 6:11–13; 12:14–15; Gal. 4:19; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; cf. 1 Thess. 2:7b–8a, “as a nursing mother”). What thrills parents more than anything is for them to know their children are following parental instructions and training not just when they are directly supervising their children, but when they hear from others that their kids are behaving properly. That is the point that Paul is making in Philippians 2:12. He knows that the believers in Philippi have been obedient (ὑπηκούσατε) to the word of the Lord, and he wants them to continue doing that. Thus, he strongly urges them (κατεργάζεσθε) live in a Christlike way, not only if he happens to be in their midst, but even more so when he is not around. That will demonstrate that their Christian teaching and behavior are thoroughly ingrained in their hearts rather than dependent on Paul’s watchful eye.
It is that little word μή that clues us as to the focus of this passage. Paying attention to some of the smallest words in the Greek language can reap rich exegetical insights.