Should’ve, May’ve, Might’ve – Philippians 2:10

January 7, 2010 at 4:45 am 1 comment

The other day, a member stopped by my office with a question about a passage of Scripture she had been reading.  This particular passage is actually quite well known.  The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-10:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee…

She paused right here in her citation of this passage.  “What’s the next word?” she asked me with a playful look in her eye.  “Will,” I responded confidently.  “Every knee will bow!”  “No,” she fired back.  “At least not in the NIV.  It’s the word ‘should.’  The NIV translates this verse, ‘At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow.’”  Then came her question:  “Is Paul saying here that although every knee should bow before Jesus, not every knee will bow before Jesus?”

I have to admit, I was perplexed by her question.  After all, my old reliable New American Standard Version of the Bible translates Philippians 2:10 thusly:  “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”  There’s no ambiguity in the NASB’s translation.  It will happen!  Every knee will bow!

“Will bow?” “Should bow?”  Which one is it?  First, it is important to note that Scripture is unequivocally clear about this much:  On the Last Day, every knee will bow before Jesus, whether by faith or by force.  As Paul elsewhere writes:  “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12).  On the Last Day, every knee will bow.  If your knee bows by faith, it does so to your salvation.  If it bows by force, it does so to your damnation.  But one way or another, your knee will bow before Jesus.  So what’s the deal with Philippians 2:10?

In Philippians 2:10, the verb “bow” is in the subjunctive mood.  In Greek, the subjunctive mood indicates potentiality or contingency, but not certainty.   It is often translated with the words “may” or “might” to indicate the uncertainty that this mood carries with it.  “Every knee may bow…”  “Every knee might bow…”  Could it be that Paul is teaching that bowing knees are only a possibility and not a certainty?

With all due respect to the NIV, I think I’ll stick with the NASB’s translation of this particular passage.  For the subjunctive indicates contingency except when it is used in what is known as a “purpose clause,” which, notably enough, constitute the bulk of the subjunctive’s usages in the New Testament. In the instance of a purpose clause, the subjunctive indicates not potentiality or contingency, but certainty.   And this is the case in Philippians 2:9-10.  God has given Jesus a “name that is above every name” with an express purpose:  “That at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”  And God’s purpose cannot be thwarted.  Bowing knees at Jesus’ name are sure and certain.

Interestingly, this same construction is employed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, [with the express purpose] that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  The Greek verb for “perish” is in the subjunctive, but because it is part of a purpose clause, it is not that we “should not perish,” or “may not perish,” or “might not perish,” it is that we “will not perish.”  And indeed we will not.  For our salvation is as sure as the God who purposes it.

“Every knee will bow.”  “Whoever believes in Christ will have eternal life.”  There’s no “should,” “may,” or “might” about it.  For these are immutable promises of the gospel.  As God says, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:10).  Praise God for his sure and certain purpose clause!

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Entry filed under: Theological Questions.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Laura  |  January 10, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    The Amplified Bible clarifies with the word “must” after should indicating they will bow. Like you said, either by faith or force.

    Philippians 2:10 (Amplified Bible)

    10That in (at) the name of Jesus every knee [a]should (must) bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    Interesting that the Message translates will bow but most other translations including the ESV use the word should.


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