Three New Testament Serendipities by J B Phillips

Three New Testament Serendipities by J B Phillips

     All the passages below are taken from the book, “Spiritual Classics,” edited by Richard J. Foster and Emile Griffin and published in 2000.

              J. B. Phillips


     John Bertram Phillips was an Anglican clergyman best known for his contemporary translation of the New Testament. A Cambridge graduate with honors in classics, he worked as a curate (and subsequently a vicar) in wartime London.

     In his dialogues with young people, Phillips became concerned that many of them could not understand or relate to the venerable King James Bible. Responding pastorally, he tried his hand at a new translation of one of Paul’s letters, using contemporary language and tone.

    Parishioners young and old were delighted. Said his friend C. S. Lewis, “It’s like looking at an old picture after it’s been cleaned.” Encouraged by such reactions, and by his own experience in the translation process, Phillips went on to put the entire New Testament into modern English, a translation that became internationally popular.

     In addition, Phillips also wrote books to evangelize and teach. Among these were Your God Is Too Small (1953) and Plain Christianity (1957). His series of twenty-six radio plays about the life of Christ was collected as A Man Called Jesus(1959).

     In the following selection, which is taken from Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony, Phillips tells his personal response to the work of translating the letters of Paul, James, and others.

     Clearly, he is on a personal journey of discovery, dealing with things in the Bible that may have baffled him in earlier translations.

He is delighted to get in closer touch with first-century Christians. He also is glad that he can bring his readers closer to Jesus Christ.

In particular, he devotes one chapter to nine serendipities he found in the New Testament. Here are three of them.


Three New Testament Serendipities

     Just over two hundred years ago, in 1754 to be precise, Horace Walpole coined the word “serendipity,” which has now come to be accepted into our language. The word, which is derived from the ancient name for Ceylon, is defined as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Before I go on to discuss the work of translating the Gospels I feel I must mention some of the “happy and unexpected discoveries” which I made in the translation of the Epistles.

Serendipity 1

     The first one I will mention, which of course may all the time have been no secret to anybody else, was the expression “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). This struck me as a positive jewel. Just as we might say that a Texas tycoon is “rich in oil,” so Paul writes it as a matter of fact that God is “rich in mercy.” The pagan world was full of fear, and the Christian gospel set out to replace that fear of the gods or the fates, or even life itself, with love for and trust in God. “Rich in mercy” was good news to the ancient world and it is good news today….

Serendipity 3

     I had for some time been worried about the expression “fear and trembling.” It did not seem likely to me that Paul in writing to the Philippians could have meant literally that they were to work out their salvation in a condition of anxiety and nervousness. We all know that fear destroys love and spoils relationships, and a great deal of the New Testament is taken up with getting rid of the old ideas of fear and substituting the new ideas of love and trust.

     I realised that the Greek word translated “fear” can equally well mean “reverence” or “awe” or even “respect,” but I was bothered about the “trembling.” Surely the same Spirit who inspired Paul to write to Timothy that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power and of love and of a sound mind” could not also have meant us to live our entire lives in a state of nervous terrorI came to the conclusion, a little reluctantly, that the expression “in fear and trembling” had become a bit of a cliche, even as it has in some circles today.

     As I went on translating I found that this must be the case. For when Paul wrote to the Corinthians and reported that Titus had been encouraged and refreshed by their reception of him, he then went on to say that the Corinthian Christians received him with “fear and trembling” (2 Corinthians 7:15)! Now this makes nonsense, unless it is a purely conventional verbal form implying proper respect. For, little as we know of Titus, we cannot imagine any real Christian minister being encouraged and refreshed by a display of nervous anxiety.

     We get the same phrase occurring again in Paul’s advice to Christian slaves (Ephesians 6:5), where the context makes it quite clear that faithfulness and responsibility are much more what Paul means than “fear and trembling.” This much became plain, and then I realised that when Paul really did mean the words to be taken literally he amplified them to make sure they would be properly understood. I think we sometimes imagine that the incredibly heroic Paul suffered from no human weaknesses, except for the “thorn in the flesh” about which all New Testament commentators have written (2 Corinthians 12:7). But if we turn to 1 Corinthians 2:3, we find Paul writing that “I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” Now this is a different thing altogether. Here we have a man honest enough to admit that he was frightened and that he was, or had been, ill. “Fear and trembling” here are perfectly legitimate. It is only when they are used as a phrase almost without literal meaning that we begin to feel uncomfortable….

Serendipity 9

     There are naturally many more happy and unexpected discoveries which I made over the years, some of them perhaps merely revealing how superficial must have been my previous knowledge of the New Testament letters. But since this is a personal testimony, I have felt it right to mention some of the things which came to me with fresh and startling clarity. I have kept the best until last.

     It occurs in John’s first letter, chapter 3, verse 20. Like many others, I find myself something of a perfectionist, and if we don’t watch ourselves this obsession for the perfect can make us arrogantly critical of other people and, in certain moods, desperately critical of ourselves. In this state of mind it is not really that I cannot subscribe to the doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins, but that the tyrannical super-Me condemns and has no mercy on myself.

     Now John, in his wisdom, points out in inspired words, “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” This is a gentle but salutary rebuke to our assumption that we know better than God! God, on any showing, is infinitely greater in wisdom and love than we are and, unlike us, knows all the factors involved in human behaviour.

     We are guilty of certain things, and these we must confess with all honesty, and make reparation where possible. But there may be many factors in our lives for which we are not really to blame at all. We did not choose our heredity; we did not choose the bad, indifferent, or excellent way in which we were brought up.

     This is naturally not to say that every wrong thing we do, or every fear or rage to which we are subject today, is due entirely to heredity, environment, and upbringing. But it certainly does mean that we are in no position to judge ourselves; we simply must leave that to God, who is our Father and “is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” It is almost as if John is saying, “If God loves us, who are we to be so high and mighty as to refuse to love ourselves?”


2 Corinthians 7 (Phillips’s Translation)

     With these promises ringing in our ears, dear friends, let us keep clear of anything that smirches body or soul. Let us prove our reverence for God by consecrating ourselves to him completely.

     Do make room in your hearts again for us! Not one of you has ever been wronged or ruined or cheated by us. I don’t say this to condemn your attitude, but simply because, as I said before, whether we live or die, you live in our hearts. To your face I talk to you with utter frankness; behind your back I talk about you with deepest pride. Whatever troubles I have gone through, the thought of you has filled me with comfort and deep happiness.

     For even when we arrived in Macedonia, we had a wretched time with trouble all round us—wrangling outside and anxiety within. Not but what God, who cheers the depressed, gave us the comfort of the arrival of Titus. And it wasn’t merely his coming that cheered us, but the comfort you had given him, for he could tell us of your eagerness to help, your deep sympathy and keen interest on my behalf.

     All that made me doubly glad to see him. For although my letter had hurt you, I don’t regret it now (as I did, I must confess, at one time). I can see that the letter did upset you, though only for a time, and now I am glad I sent it, not because I want to hurt you, but because it made you grieve for things that were wrong. In other words, the result was to make you sorry as God would have had you sorry, and not merely to make you offended by what we said. The sorrow which God uses means a change of heart and leads to salvation—it is the world’s sorrow that is such a deadly thingYou can look back now and see how the hand of God was in that sorrow. Look how seriously it made you think, how eager it made you to prove your innocence, how indignant it made you and, in some cases, how afraid! Look how it made you long for my presence, how it stirred up your keenness for the faith, how ready it made you to punish the offender! Yes, that letter cleared the air for you as nothing else would have done.

     Now I did not write that letter really for the sake of the man who sinned, or even for the sake of the one who was sinned against, but to let you see for yourselves, in the sight of God, how deeply you really do care for us. That is why we now feel so deeply comforted, and our sense of joy was greatly enhanced by the satisfaction that your attitude had obviously given Titus. You see, I had told him of my pride in you, and you have not let me down. I have always spoken the truth to you, and this proves that my proud words about you were true as well. Titus himself has a much greater love for you, now that he has seen for himself the obedience you gave him, and the respect and reverence with which you treated him. I am profoundly glad to have my confidence in you so fully proved.


     The following can be used for discussion within a small group, or used for journal reflections by individuals:

1. What is the importance to me of the biblical translation that I use? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the more traditional as opposed to the more contemporary translations?

2. What specific phrases in Scripture are stumbling blocks for me, as “fear and trembling” was for J. B. Phillips? How have I used the discipline of study as a way of working through these difficult phrases?


The following exercises can be done by individuals, shared between spiritual friends, or used in the context o f a small group. Choose one or more o f the following:

1. In a group setting, list the biblical translations that are being used by different members. Have people changed translations for a particular reason? Discuss.

2. Consider swapping Bibles for a week—or if that’s too difficult, for a day or so—just to gain a different perspective. At the next session, report on the difference you felt.

3. Read aloud from J. B. Phillips or an even more contemporary translation of the New Testament, like Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

4. If anyone in the group knows New Testament Greek, have him or her read aloud the passages from 2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6 that Phillips mentions and comment on the “feel” of the Greek texts.


     The serendipities that J. B. Phillips experienced in his translation work afford us a helpful insight into study as a spiritual discipline. Did you notice that the insights he gained came simply by paying attention to the words o f Scripture?Now, this matter of attention is so important for us who live in the wordy world of high-tech telecommunication systems. We now have the dubious distinction of being able to communicate more and say less than any civilization in history. We have become, as Clement o f Alexandria says, like old shoes—all worn out except for the tongue. And because so many words bombard us from so many media we tend to pay little attention to them. Can you or I remember even a single full sentence from the last movie we saw, or the last e-mail we received?

     What we must learn, therefore, is discernment. Some words deserve sustained attention, others do not. The phrase that Phillips took such delight in—“rich in mercy”—is a reality we all could soak in for a very long time. In contrast, we should probably speed-read the latest book from the New York Times best-seller list, for likely it deserves no more than five or ten minutes of our attention. In fact, it is a positive virtue for us to remain ignorant of much of the attention-getting, ego-driven, greed-motivated words that whiz by on the information superhighway. We do so in order to be attentive to words that speak life into our souls. This, too, is a discipline.

                             RICHARD J. FOSTER


J. B. PHILLIPS, The Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony (New York: Macmillan, 1967). This book provides genuine insight into the thought of Paul, James, and other New Testament writers. Most important of all, it is a testimony of faith, in which Phillips says how much more the authenticity of the New Testament came home to him as he labored over his translations.

The Newborn Christian: 114 Readings from J. B. Phillips, edited by William Griffin (New York: Macmillan, 1978.) This devotionally styled anthology offers brief readings from a broad variety of works by J. B. Phillips. [93-98]

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