115. God at work–Paul’s Concept of the Verb energein and Cognates (Philippians 2:12-13)

One of the more unusual notions that frequently occurs in Paul’s letters is that God is “working in” people and situations. The verb that expresses this most consistently is energein 1 (“put one’s capabilities into operation”) and its cognate nouns energeia 2 (“state or quality of being active”), energēma3 (“activity as expression of capability”), and the adjective energēs 4 (“pertains to the practical expression of capability, effective, active, powerful”). While not exclusive to Paul’s letters, its predominant occurrence in his correspondence is worth noting.

In the frequent occurrences in Paul’s writings, the majority of cases refer to the powerful and effective activity that God (one of the persons of the Trinity) exercises.

Energein 5 (verb)6 God: 1 Cor 12:6; Gal 2:8(2x):3:5; 5:6(?); Eph. 1:11,20; Phil. 2:13(2x); 1 Thess. 2:13 (or God’s word); Spirit: 1 Cor 12:11 7

Energeia (noun) God: Eph. 1:19;3:7; Col. 1:29; 2 Thess.2:11; Christ: Phil. 3:21; Uncertain: Eph 4:168

Energēma (noun) God: 1 Cor 12:6; Spirit: 1 Cor 12:10

Energēs (adjective) (none in Pauline correspondence).9

Sometimes God’s capabilities are operating in the Messiah (Eph 1:19; Col 2:12) in connection with his resurrection and ascension, with the point made that this same powerful capability is now operating within believers. In other contexts God’s powerful activity occurs in humans for salvation (Eph 3:7; Phil 2:13; Gal 3:5) and sometimes for service (Col 1:29; 1 Cor 12:6,10-11; 1 Thess 2:!3; Gal 2:8; perhaps Eph 4:16). In Paul’s writings God is not the only “personality” that effectively works. In 2 Thess 2:9 energeia refers to Satan’s activities, as it does in Eph 2:2. Perhaps as Robinson suggests, this is intended to parody the Messiah’s work.1

The fact that God engages in energeia in time and history, but also directly in the lives of people, contrasts the Gospel emphatically with pagan idolatry and philosophies. Idols do no work and cannot by definition work. Rather humans do everything for them. Epicurus taught that while gods existed, they had no interest in human affairs and so gods had no effective activity in human lives. Stoics taught self-discipline and self-dependency. If the gods acted, often it was to human detriment and certainly with no perceived plan or positive outcome for the most part. People within the context of Hellenistic religions tended to frame their lives in terms of Fate and magic – powers active in their world but ones that had little interest in their personal good. Magic rituals were used to control the gods’ actions so that they were less harmful and might be bent towards personal gain. Within the Gospel message the Messiah now exercises control over these deviant and capricious powers. God’s Holy Spirit takes up residence in the life of the Christian to deliver, to provide divine wisdom, to embed one’s whole life in God’s work.

When nouns not referring to personal agents are subjects of the verb, the form used is passive (cf. comments in footnote 5). “Comfort” (2 Cor 1:6); “death” (2 Cor 4:12); “faith” (Gal 5:6) “sinful passions” (Rom 7:5); “mystery” (2 Thess 2:7); “power” (Eph 3:20); “effective activity” (Col 1:29); “Word of God” (1 Thess 2:13), all occur as subjects of passive forms. With a passive form there is always agency related to the action, i.e. the person or personality who actually is doing the action. In some cases Satan probably is the implied agent (Rom 7:5; 2 Thess 2:13). In all other cases it is one of the members of the Trinity. Kenneth Clarke11 argues that all usages of the verb energein in the passive voice have the sense either “to be infused with supernatural spirit” (as in Matt 14:2; Mk 6:14), or “to be made supernaturally operative” (the other eight occurrences mentioned in this paragraph).

The implications of this for a passage such as Gal 5:6 suggest a translation that makes faith the product of God’s supernatural work in the life of a person (i.e. faith is being made operative) because of God’s love for them. In 1 Thess 2:13 this principle would indicate that “word” (logos) is the referent of the relative pronoun and it is this “word of God which is being made supernaturally active (energeitai) by God in you who believe.”

Perhaps as Clarke suggests this understanding of the passive forms of energein gives insight into its usage in James 5:16 where prayer is linked with energoumenē. He proposes the sense that “the prayer of an upright person is very powerful when it is set in operation by supernatural force (energoumenē).”12 So the focus is not upon human fervency but rather on God’s willingness to be supernaturally active in response to that prayer.

In those cases where sin functions as the subject, then the supernatural agent behind that effective activity is Satan.

At times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament this verb is associated with God. For example in Isaiah 41:4 God claims that he “has wrought (enērgēsen) and done these things,” i.e. established righteousness and preserved Israel. In v.10 the prophet says that God is the one who has strengthened (enischusas ) Israel, his servant. No antagonist will prevail. During the Maccabean period God’s action to strike down Heliodorus, the agent of Antiochus, when he sought to plunder the temple treasury is described as “the dominance (dunasteian) of God” and his “divine intervention (theian energeian)” (2 Maccabees 3:28-29). Again in 3 Macc 4:21; 5:12, 28 the noun energeia describes the miraculous intervention of God’s power to save his people by hindering the actions of pagan rulers. The noun describes divine wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 as “a reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God (tēs tou theou energeias).”13

It should be noted that the verb and cognate noun do not in and of themselves denote supernatural activity without some specific indication in the context. We find examples of humans as subjects of active forms in the Greek translation of Numbers 8:24 (variant reading) or 1 Esdras 2:18(20) or Proverbs 21:6, as well as many contexts external to the biblical canon.

Kenneth Clarke14 notes that in the eleven usages of the verb in the active voice, it is “associated twice with [dunamis] (once as subject and once as object), three times with cognates of [energeia] and [energēma ], and once with the [kratos tēs ischuos] of God.”15 He argues that this verb and its cognates in such contexts have a supernatural connotation and that whether it is God or Satan who is the subject and whose power is involved, these are supernatural sources of power. The texts in Ephesians 1:19-20 are particular emphatic in this regard, where the term is used in a context where supernatural powers are subjected to the Messiah. Even in the case of the noun energēmata in 1 Cor 12:6-11, these are provided by God and thus are supernatural powers whose source is in God who “works all of them in all people” (ho energōn ta panta en pasin ). So he argues for the meaning “infuse with supernatural spirit.”16 Similar associations occur in literary contexts external to the NT. For example one of the Jewish scholars in the Letter of Aristeas 266 states that “it is by the working of God (energeia theou ] that persuasion succeeds.” Bertram notes that “in the pap[yri] it [energein] often denotes magical power….”17

The use of the verb in Matthew 14:2 and the parallel in Mark 6:14 is active in voice and the subject in both cases is hai dunameis . Whether we should render this term as “miracles” or “powers” is debated. NIV and ESV render this noun as “miraculous powers” which “are at work in him,” i.e. Jesus. The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “these powers” in both contexts. Herod attributes Jesus’ power to perform miracles to powers that are not associated with Yahweh.18 The translation decision will depend upon contextual factors, but if the reference is to “powers”, i.e. supernatural forces, then we have another example of the verb energein used to describe the activity of supernatural forces within human beings. In this case the powers are not those of Yahweh, according to Herod.

Paul’s usage of this word group suggests that he has a very real sense that Yahweh himself is directly active in his life and that of other believers, enabling them to experience salvation and participate effectively with God in his Kingdom agenda. In Gal 2:8 Paul asserts that God has been actively working with respect to him so that he can fulfill the role of apostle to the Gentiles, in a way that parallels God work with respect to Peter’s apostolic ministry. God himself through the saving work of Messiah Jesus now will involve himself in the lives of non-Jewish people and make them part of the people of God.

Genesis 2:2 indicated that on the seventh day of creation God rested “from all his works. However, God continues to be effectively active, to be working energetically in the world and the lives of people to fulfill his plans. As Phil 2:13 says:

For it is God who works in you (ho energōn en humin ) to will and act (to energein ) according to his good purpose.

Paul in Eph 4:16 seems to say that Christ provides power to each member of the body so that it can contribute to the growth of the body.

By dint of the transformation that occurs in the conversion process and the endowment of the Holy Spirit, God himself actively operates within the believer. Thus our human activity becomes an extension of the divine activity. As Paul says, all of this is in accord with God’s eudokia (Phil 2:13), i.e. good pleasure, good will, desire. God’s activity within us enables us to experience his goodness and give expression to it simultaneously. Thus we can legitimately claim to be God’s “fellowworkers (sunergoi)” (1 Cor 3:9).

The believers’ lives are now set within the boundaries of God’s family; their being is empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish and contribute to the will of God; they possess “gifts” which enable them to live out God’s calling in Christ, no matter how God may direct and in whatever context that person is located. As kingdom agents of the Messiah, believers in their life activities energetically seek to “present every one perfect in Christ” and wrestles “with all God’s energy which so powerfully works (kata tēn energeian autou en emoi en dunamei)” (Col 1:29) within to accomplish this. Paul applies this to his calling in Christ being fulfilled in the role of apostle. What is true of Paul should also be true of other believers. Peter affirms in his First Letter that believers possess God’s calling and the potential to align their behaviour in ways that will accomplish God’s will, not the counsel of the nations (4:1-3).

God’s effective activity in my life pertains to the spiritual, physical, emotional and intellectual realms, because I am an integrated being and God has saved all of me in Christ. So in the words of Rom 12:1-2, I yield this body to God as an instrument to live out and display his righteousness. This applies to my activity in the household, in the marketplace, in the visible church, and in the civic arena – wherever I am, whatever I am doing, and whenever I am doing it. This is the truth, I believe, of Paul’s statement in Gal 2:20 that he is no longer alive, but it is the Messiah living through him. Whether he was making canvas implements in the Corinth Agora, waiting for trial in Rome under house arrest, or working in the church at Antioch, in Paul’s view all of this was God’s work, because the Spirit was actively operating within him.


i. If God personally is working actively and effectively in your life, where does the become recognizable for you? Do you thank God for his effective activity in your life?

ii. Because God is at work in our lives all of the time as followers of Jesus, this elevates the meaning of our decisions and conduct to a missional focus. All of life becomes the canvas upon which God is portraying his Good News.

1 1x in Matt; 1x in Mk; 18x in Paul: Rom., 1&2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., Col., 1&2 Thess.; 1x James

2 8x in Eph., Phil., Col., 2 Thess.

3 2x in 1 Cor.

4 2x in 1 Cor and Philemon; 1x in Hebrews.

5 There is considerable debate in the literature as to whether energeisthai should be construed as a middle form (semantically equivalent to the active voice in meaning; cf. J.B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London: MacMillan and Co., 1905), 204-05), G. Bertram, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans, 1974), 652-54; H. Hoehner, Ephesians. An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 493) or passive (as argued by J. Armitage Robinson, Commentary on the Ephesians. Exposition of the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1979), 245-46 and Kenneth Clarke, “The Meaning of ἘΝΕΡΓÉΩ and ΚΑΤΑΡΓÉΩ in the New Testament,” in The Gentile Bias and Other Essays (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1980), 188; Markus Barth, Ephesians 1-3 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co.,1974), 375), in which case there would be some agent exerting influence or power upon the subject.

6 In this article I side with those who read energeisthai as passive. All of the “passive” forms (apart from James 5:16) are in Paul’s letters (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess. 2:7; 2 Cor. 1:6; 4:12; Gal 5:6; Rom 7:5; Col 1:29; Eph 3:20. In none of these cases is the subject a person, whereas in the case of the active form, the subject, I would argue, is regarded as a personal agent of some sort. Robinson (Commentary on Ephesians, 246) notes that outside of Scripture we only have the aorist passive form, not the aorist middle formation. He then argues that the passive forms “serve to remind us that the operation is not self-originated” (247). “The powers ‘work’ indeed; but they ‘are made to work’” (247).

7 Matthew 14:2; Mark 6:14 – reference to hai dunameis (the powers); James 5:16 – prayer. The word implies that something possesses life because it is active (cf. Wisdom of Sol. 15:11. This verb means literally “to be at work, to work” (intrans.) and is the antonym of argein (“to be idle”). When it takes an object, the object defines the result of the activity. In the NT the intransitive sense occurs at Mk 6:14 and Mt. 14:2 (cf. Mk 16:20 sunergountos (“working with”); Acts 14:3; 15:12; Heb 2:4) as well as Gal 2:8 (cf. 2 Cor. 12:11f and the connection with miraculous activity in the use of the compound kateirgasthē); Eph 2:2 (reference to Satan); Phil 2:13 (exceptionally applied to human activity). Transitive usage is found in Phil 2:13; Gal 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:6-11; Eph 1:11,19.

8 Galen, the Greek medical writer in De Natural. Facultt. i.2,4,5, makes a distinction between ergon ‘result’; energeia ‘action productive of ergon’, and dunamis ‘force productive of energeia’ (cf. J. Armitage Robinson, Ephesians, 242).

9 Hebrews 4:12 – the word of God is said to be “active (energēs).”

1 J. Armitage Robinson, Commentary on the Ephesians, 241.

11 Kenneth Clarke, “The Meaning of ἘΝΕΡΓÉΩ and ΚΑΤΑΡΓÉΩ in the New Testament,” 188.

12 Ibid., 189.

13 In Wisdom of Solomon 15:11 the writer describes a human being as one “infused…with an active soul (psyche energousan)” by the Creator.

14 Kenneth Clarke, “The Meaning of ἙΝΕΡΓΈΩ and ΚΑΤΑΡΓΈΩ in the New Testament,” 183-91.

15 Ibid., 185. These terms mean “power”, “state of being active,” “having capability to be active,” and “the mighty power.”

16 Ibid.,

17 G. Bertram, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 652.

18 Whether the people of Nazareth do (cf. the wording of Mark 6:2) also attribute his miraculous acts to “powers” is disputed.


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