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Finding peace, joy, and contentment in the Son

Philippians 4:1–9 is part of the lectionary readings for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which is October 11th. In this passage, Paul addressed his readers in Philippi with several endearing phrases. He called them his “brothers and sisters” (v. 1), as well as his “dear friends.”

The apostle told the Philippians that he cared for them and desired to see them. He also described them as the source of his “joy.” Likewise, they were the basis for the eternal reward, or “crown,” he would one day receive in heaven for evangelizing the lost.

Paul could have commanded his readers to “stand firm in the Lord.” Instead, the apostle encouraged the Philippians with pastoral affection to be strong and faithful in their commitment to the Savior, even amid all their troubles and hardships. The way Paul instructed the Philippians is a powerful example of how Christians can build one another up in their unity in the Messiah.

Evidently, the Lord’s peace was at times absent in the Philippian congregation, which was why Paul urged his readers more than once to strive for unity. One conflict was apparently so intense that the apostle had to publicly mention the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche (v. 2).

Paul implored each woman to “come to an agreement” with the other person, and to do so as fellow believers in Christ. Perhaps their quarrel was so bitter that the only way they could reconcile was by putting their commitment to the Messiah ahead of their personal grievances.

Paul also called upon a third party to assist the two quarreling women in resolving their differences. The identity of this unnamed person is difficult to determine.

The apostle referred to this Christian brother (the Greek word is in the male gender) as “yokefellow” (v. 3), and described him as being “loyal.” It is possible that the Greek word Paul used was actually the man’s name. In any case, the apostle must have trusted the pastoral skills of this individual enough to know that he could succeed as an intermediary between these two estranged women.

Paul’s remarks about Euodia and Syntyche demonstrate that apostle’s tact in dealing with a potentially volatile situation. He did not address the cause of the conflict, nor did he take sides. Instead, the apostle noted that both women had labored with him in ministering the Word of God.

If the two could serve side by side with Paul as he proclaimed the gospel, surely they could overlook their differences and stand side by side as sisters in the Lord Jesus. Paul also mentioned other believers who participated in his ministry.

Some experts have tried to identify Clement, whom Paul spoke of by name, as the early church father, Clement of Rome. However, it is doubtful that these two Clements are the same person, especially since Clement was a common Roman name.

Indeed, nothing is known about this man and the other “coworkers,” except that their names are recorded in the “book of life.” Evidently, this is a heavenly list of the names of God’s people (Rev 3:5). What is important is not that the identity and deeds of these believers are disclosed to us, but that they are known to God as His beloved children.

After admonishing Euodia and Syntyche to settle their differences in a spirit of Christian love, Paul repeated what he had written earlier, and that was for his readers to “rejoice in the Lord” (Phil 4:4; see 3:1). The apostle certainly did not want the Philippians to reconcile grudgingly. That would only place a flimsy bandage on a wound that required deeper healing.

By finding lasting joy in the Messiah, Paul’s readers would be truly restored in their relationships with one another. The apostle was not simply encouraging the Philippians to be cheerful, while they endured persecution from nonbelievers.

Rejoicing in the Lord meant that Paul’s readers could lean on the Son to uphold them. He would fill them with gladness in any situation.

After teaching about one fruit of the Spirit (namely, joy), Paul gave instructions about another—“gentleness” (4:5; see Gal 5:22–23). The apostle had in mind a gracious disposition, which is especially powerful in the face of being wronged.

Paul was not advising his readers to be human doormats, nor was he condoning oppression. Like Jesus, the apostle could be quite forceful when speaking out against evil and injustice.

Instead, Paul was saying that Jesus’ followers should be considerate of others with Christlike humility. Also, the apostle was not saying that must be self-effacing, but that they should interact with others with sensitivity and in such a way that they are not manipulative.

Paul stated that the Messiah’s return was “near” (v. 5). This was not so much a statement of fact as an invocation of the Lord’s coming.

The above petition was common among believers in the first century. Quite probably, the first and second generations of Christians thought it likely that the Messiah’s return was imminent.

Nevertheless, this invocation was more a call for believers to be alert to the Lord’s coming, than a certainty of its immediate occurrence. Evidence of this invocation appears in ancient Christian documents such as the Didache (also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).

Paul told his friends not to be consumed by “worry” (v. 6). Such anxiety distracted believers from what was important to God and focused attention on themselves.

Prayer was the antidote for self-absorption. When believers turned to the Creator and surrendered their deep-seated concerns to Him, His “peace” (v. 7) could reach their innermost parts.

Paul did not imply that the burdens of God’s children would vanish, nor was the apostle talking about a Stoic mindset. In fact, it was an inner peace that could come only from the Lord and was beyond anyone’s comprehension.

In addition, the Father’s “peace” would “guard” the “hearts and minds” of His children in baptismal union with “Christ Jesus.” The Greek word rendered “guard” is a military term that depicts a sentry maintaining his watch.

Since Philippi was a garrison town, the original recipients of Paul’s letter would have immediately comprehended the meaning of his metaphor. Every day they would have seen Roman sentries standing guard at the city gates.

God’s “peace” could only come through the Lord Jesus. His atoning sacrifice at Calvary enabled repentant, believing sinners to be reconciled with the Creator.

Paul told the Philippians to dwell upon specific things. The Greek word rendered “think” (v. 8) does not simply mean “call to mind.” The apostle was stressing the importance of reflecting deeply upon something and then allowing it to shape one’s conduct.

It was not enough for believers to have good thoughts. They also needed to behave accordingly. So, Paul offered his readers six ethical expressions upon which a genuine, loyal follower of the Messiah should think reflectively and responsively.

The apostle did not intend that these virtues be taken individually or as sequential steps by which to achieve correct thinking. Rather, they denoted an entire, unified way of thinking.

Furthermore, what Paul listed was not meant to be comprehensive. That is why the apostle qualified his statement with the words “if anything.”

Paul could have provided more descriptions of the above set of attitudes. Yet, his point was that whatever was pondered, should be “excellent” and “praiseworthy,” that is, esteemed superlative by God and admired as laudable by people.

First, Paul drew attention to “whatever is true.” Focusing our minds on what we know to be factual and valid frees us from the indecision and hesitancy that often accompany mere speculation.

Second, Paul spotlighted “whatever is noble.” The Greek term for “noble” might better be rendered “honorable” or “worthy of honor.” It implies what is dignified. So, our thoughts should be on things that are worthwhile.

The third phrase refers to “whatever is right.” The emphasis is on God’s children obeying His will, which He has made known in His Word.

Fourth, Paul often counseled believers to keep themselves “pure.” For instance, he told the Corinthians, “dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that defiles the flesh and spirit” (2 Cor 7:1).

“Whatever is lovely” (Phil 4:8) is fifth. The Greek term for “lovely” is found only here in the New Testament. It means “pleasing” or “attractive.” While evil might feel alluring, what is “lovely” is delightful to God. These kinds of thoughts are truly beautiful and winsome.

Sixth, we are to think upon “whatever is admirable.” Paul used a word that means “of good report” or “speaking well of.” We are to reflect upon only those thoughts that are commendable to the Lord.

Earlier in the letter, Paul urged the Philippians to follow his example (3:17). The apostle was not timid in presenting himself as a role model for them to exemplify.

What the Philippians had “learned” (4:9), “received,” “heard,” and “seen,” shows that, while Paul was with them, he displayed a character and conduct beyond reproach. The result of such obedience was being blessed with the “peace” that accompanies the Creator’s abiding, sacred presence.

Paul might sound prideful in directing the Philippians to use him as a prime example of how they should act as believers. Yet, we should remember that few manuscripts, even of the Gospels, were available to the early church, and only letters such as Paul’s gave practical advice on Christian living.

Most people would have imitated the behavior of whomever told them about Jesus, thinking that the person would surely be a model of godly living. So, Paul was being practical in his exhortation for his readers to follow his moral example.

Key ideas to contemplate

How do you define deep joy? How is it different from the happiness we feel at a family party, or the excitement of a football game? Does the gospel really open a new dimension of experience that surpasses everything else? These are the sorts of questions we routinely wrestle with and that are addressed in today’s Scripture passage.

1. Obtaining strength. Often the gospel is rejected as a crutch for weak people. Some people think that if you’re strong, you don’t need Jesus. Yet, as we read the testimony of Paul, it does not appear that his faith in the Son was a crutch. The apostle was not a weak person. He exuded remarkable strength under stress.

2. Gaining perspective. The gospel offers answers to our deepest longings for joy, security, and freedom from worry. The gospel is not a psychological formula. The gospel is a person—Jesus of Nazareth.

The preceding truth makes Christianity distinctive. Believers live in baptismal union with the Son and He lives in them.

Only Jesus brings deep, satisfying joy that’s not dependent on circumstances. Also, only Jesus gives joy that sustains us in our darkest hours.

It is our privilege to know the Redeemer better each day. The more we truly know Him, the deeper will be our joy.

3. Deciding not to worry. In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus commanded His followers—it was not a suggestion—to stop worrying about life and its cares. So, what can we do to make this coming week anxiety-free?

For instance, we can remember that God has a plan and a purpose in all things and thank Him for that. We can count on His strength and not our own to handle whatever situation we face. Moreover, we can draw closer to the Creator, rather than indulging in the sin of self-centered anxiety, acting as if we could take care of everything ourselves.

4. Learning to be content. Paul lived by focusing on the future. Also, through prayer and thanksgiving, he gave all situations to God, who was the apostle’s strength. That was the only way he could truly rejoice in all circumstances and feel the peace of God in his heart.

The above is not a fake, paint-on-a-smile kind of contentment or a deliverance from all troubling circumstances. True contentment grows naturally out of a close relationship with God that puts Him, not us, in charge of all things.

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Dan T. Lioy

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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