Dear Church Family,
Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘hermeneutic’ as ‘a method or principle of interpretation.’ Seminaries teach courses on biblical hermeneutics or how to interpret the Bible. But everyone – whether they’ve studied or not – has a hermeneutic, or method of interpreting the Bible. And, a person’s hermeneutic is often informed by many things: past experiences, socio-economic context, culture, etc. Yet, the goal is that as we continually read and study the Scriptures, our hermeneutic will become more and more informed by Scripture itself.
In my own personal experience, I have found that many Christians have a hermeneutic that is individualistic rather than corporate – as if the Bible is speaking only to “you” (as an individual Christian) rather than to “y’all” (as the Church of Jesus Christ). Of course, we must make personal applications for ourselves as individuals as we read God’s Word; however, by and large, the Scriptures were written not to believers as individuals, but to believers as God’s household.
So, in an effort to help us avoid what comedian Brian Regan calls “the me monster” and to help us form a better “y’all hermeneutic,” let’s look at just one passage from God’s Word. Philippians 2:12-13 is often interpreted with a “you hermeneutic” when it actually calls for a “y’all hermeneutic.” Here’s the passage:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Unfortunately, the end of verse 12 is often quoted out of context as a caveat to the assurance of salvation. If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you may have heard someone say something like this: “Yes, it’s true, you can have assurance of your salvation, but remember, you must ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’”
Well, here’s where a proper “y’all hermeneutic” is helpful. While the word “salvation” is singular, every instance of the word “you” in this passage is not singular, but plural. The Apostle Paul is not saying, “Each one of you is on your own. Everyone has his or her own salvation to work out.” No, he’s emphasizing the corporate nature of the one gift of salvation: “You, the people of God, the Church – all y’all – have been given this gift by the work of Christ – this gift of salvation – in which you all are participating. Therefore, work it out together. Work it out together with fear and trembling – with awe and wonder – because God is the One who is at work in y’all.”
The idea of “working it out” is sort of like when you make a pie crust and you knead the lump of dough, working it out onto the counter until it is a perfect circle for the crust. So, Paul is admonishing the church to remember that they are all called to work out the benefits of salvation to all members of the church, to lovingly serve one another in peace and in unity: work out all y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in y’all, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
So, rather than a call to become introspective and think only about ourselves, this is actually a command to be more concerned about the interests of others in the church.
The Context of Philippians
This insight that we gain from a “y’all hermeneutic” fits in the overall context of the entire book of Philippians. In the first chapter, Paul has already encouraged them to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Later in chapter 2, he will go on to commend Timothy to them because he is uniquely and genuinely concerned for their welfare (Philippians 2:20). In chapter 3, he teaches them to follow his and others in the church as examples of how to walk in the Christian faith (Philippians 3:17). And, in chapter 4, he urges two women in the church who are in conflict with one another to “live in harmony in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2) and he acknowledges the service of Epaphroditus to himself on behalf of the church in Philippi as “an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
The Immediate Context
This idea of “working out all y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling” as a call to pursue peace and unity among God’s household of faith also fits in the immediate context of Philippians 2:12-13, as well. In the opening verses of this chapter, Paul says,
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. (Philippians 2:1-3).
And then, immediately following, he explains what it means to “work out y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling”:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16).
We’ve considered just one passage of Scripture where a “y’all hermeneutic” helps us to better understand and apply God’s Word for our lives, but a basic “y’all hermeneutic” will help us throughout our study of God’s Word. In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will be considering God’s call to submit to His Fatherly discipline (Hebrews 12:4-17). But, we’ll miss the entire point if we don’t approach this passage with a proper “y’all hermeneutic.” When we do, we will see that God disciplines us as sons in the household of faith – in the church – as we “pursue peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14).
As O. Palmer Robertson writes, the book of Hebrews “stresses the mutual unity of the members of the community of the saved with one another. Since the wilderness journey toward the promises of God involves a collective pilgrimage, each member must preserve a collective consciousness” (God’s People in the Wilderness: The Church in Hebrews, 60).
I look forward to worshipping with y’all on Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch