By Christopher VanDusen
As Christians, we often need reminders of how we are to feel and think in the midst of distressing circumstances. But when we’re suffering, how do we control our emotions, behavior, and thinking? The apostle Paul answers this question in Philippians 4:4-7.
Philippians is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that was suffering greatly. First, they were being persecuted by those who sought to prevent them from preaching the gospel in the Roman city of Philippi. Paul mentions this persecution at the end of the first chapter. Second, they were in danger of being influenced by false teachers. These false teachers claimed to be believers in Christ, but added Jewish law to the good news of Christ, as Paul says in the third chapter. Finally, there was at least one case of disunity in the church, where two women refused to get along. Paul addresses this in the beginning of the fourth chapter.
With all these troubles going on, how were the Philippians to respond? Paul tells them in Philippians 4:4-7, where he says,
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul gives a few instructions for how the Philippians are to control their feelings, behavior, and thinking in the midst of troubling events:
1. Be Joyful in All Places (v. 4)
2. Be Gentle Toward All People (v. 5)
3. Be Gratefully Always Praying (v. 6)
4. Be Guarded by Amazing Peace (v. 7)
Be Joyful in All Places
First, Paul commands the Philippians to always be joyful by saying,
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
What does he mean by rejoicing? Rejoicing means to feel an inner happiness that usually expresses itself in physical behavior, such as smiling, shouting, singing, or dancing. But Paul doesn’t just tell the Philippians to rejoice. He tells them to rejoice in the Lord. The title “Lord” was used of the Roman Emperor in that day to express the belief that he was highest authority over the Roman Empire. Here, Paul refers to Jesus as the One with authority over the entire universe. In other words, He has control of all circumstances, since He’s not only God, but the human King of the universe. Therefore, the Philippians are to rejoice because they know and trust the Lord, who not only controls everything, but also loves them, and is causing everything to work together for their good (Romans 8:28). Because all of their circumstances are controlled by the Lord, they are to rejoice always, or in all circumstances.
However, Paul doesn’t just command them to rejoice in the Lord always, and leave it there. He wants them to understand the vital importance of doing this, so he simply tells them to “rejoice” again. This implies that this is something Christians tend to forget. The Philippians needed to focus on rejoicing, and to remember it as something of great importance.
Be Gentle Toward All People
The second command that Paul gives the Philippians is to be gentle toward everyone, which is in verse 5:
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand . . .”
In many English translations of the Bible, including the New King James Version, New International Version, and New American Standard Bible, the Greek word that the ESV translates as “reasonableness” is translated as “gentle spirit” (NASB) or “gentleness”. This word doesn’t have exactly the same meaning as the popular understanding of “gentleness” today. Today, this word conveys the idea of taking great care not to harm someone or something. However, the Greek word that Paul uses means much more than that. It has two parts: one means “fitting”, and the other means “fair”. Hence, the word means to be appropriate and just. It carries with it the idea of going beyond the usual expectations of behavior to treat others well, regardless of personal cost.
Paul tells the Philippians to let their reasonableness, or gentleness, be put on display to everyone they come into contact with. In other words, they aren’t to come off as overbearing and selfish, but as considerate and just.
Then, Paul gives the Philippians the best reason to do this — “the Lord is at hand”. The phrase “at hand” means that the Lord is “near” or “close by”. There are two possible meanings of this sentence. First, Paul could mean that the Lord is spiritually near to every one of the Philippians because of His divine presence through His Spirit, and therefore sees all of their actions. Second, Paul could be referring to the Lord’s physical presence, which is close to being manifested through His return to the earth.
After considering these two options, I believe that the best understanding is to see Paul as referring to the Lord’s return to the earth. There are several reasons for this. First, the phrase “at hand” with reference to the Lord Jesus is elsewhere used in the New Testament to refer to the closeness of the Lord’s return, or the fact that He’s going to come very soon, and could come in an instant. This is the way the phrase is used in James 5:8b, where the apostle James says, “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (ESV). Second, there is no clear passage in the New Testament where the Lord is said to be “at hand” in the sense of being present with someone. Third, the phrase “at hand” is used in the New Testament to express the nearness of other events. For example, both John the Baptist and Jesus said that God’s kingdom was “at hand”, or “near”. Finally, this view seems to provide the best explanation of why Paul would use it as a reason that the Philippians should be gentle toward everyone. If the Lord is going to return soon, then they would want to be engaged in being gentle toward people at the moment He returns, so they’ll meet Him doing what pleases Him. Also, if there are people that tempt them to be rough, or unreasonable toward them because of their persecution of them, then mentioning the closeness of the Lord’s return would be a reminder that their persecutors who don’t repent will be punished for their persecution. Hence, they could patiently be gentle with their persecutors, knowing that the Lord will avenge them.
Be Gratefully Always Praying
In verse 6, Paul ends his instructions for the Philippians by forbidding them from being anxious, and commanding them to pray:
“. . . do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
First, Paul forbids the Philippians from being anxious “about anything”. But what does he mean by “anxious”? The Greek word translated “anxious” literally means to be “divided” or “distracted”. This speaks to the fact that anxiety is when someone’s mind is distracted by a fear or danger, and they can’t stop thinking about it. Paul says that the Philippians ought not to think this way “about anything”.
Instead, Paul commands them to do the very thing that will prevent anxiety. First, they are to let their requests “be made known to God”. That is, they are to speak to Him about what they want Him to do. Second, they are to do this “in everything”, or in all situations, without exceptions. In other words, they are to constantly and continually talk to God about their situations and circumstances. Third, they are to let God know their requests “by prayer”. The Greek word translated “prayer” is the most generic word that could be used, and simply means a message to God, or talking to God. Not only are they to let God know their requests by talking to Him, but they are also to do so by “supplication”. The Greek word here literally means “a need”, so it would probably be best translated “petition”, as in a heart-felt request for a need to be met. Finally, Paul says that these prayers are to be offered “with thanksgiving”, or by thanking God for what He’s already given the Philippians. If the Philippians pray like this, then they won’t “be anxious about anything”.
Be Guarded by Amazing Peace
In verse 7, Paul finishes this passage by describing the result of praying about everything with thanksgiving:
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
By using the word “and”, Paul is connecting this sentence with the previous one. There, he commanded the Philippians to let their requests be known to God about everything. As a result of doing that, Paul promises that God will give the Philippians His peace, which he calls “the peace of God”. Since Paul was a Jew, and understood God and His actions from the Old Testament description of Him, he’s talking about the peace of God that’s found in the Old Testament. There, the peace of God is called shalom, and not only refers to the absence of conflict, but also to the activity of spiritual well-being, joy, and goodness. Hence, when Paul says “the peace of God”, he doesn’t just mean the absence of anxiety, but also the presence of joy and trust in God, which goes hand in hand with righteous behavior.
However, Paul further describes the peace that God promises His people who pray for everything with thanksgiving. He says that it “surpasses all understanding”. In other words, it can’t be explained fully, and can’t be understood fully. This is illustrated when a Christian is going through the worst of suffering, and has no earthly or physical reason for having peace, but still has peace because he has prayed about his situation with thanksgiving, and God has given him peace.
Finally, Paul describes what God’s peace will do if the Philippians pray about their circumstances and needs with thanksgiving. First, it will guard their “hearts”. The word “guard” means to “protect from harm”. In this case, God’s peace will guard the Philippians’ “hearts”. In the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s letters, the word “heart” doesn’t refer to emotions. When Paul refers to the emotions, such as in 2 Corinthians, he uses the Greek word for “inward parts” or “bowels”. Rather, the word “heart” refers to the control center or “core” of a person, including the mind, will, desires, and affections. Since Paul includes “minds” with “hearts”, he must have in mind more of the desires, affections, and will of a person than the mind. Thus, Paul is saying that God’s peace will guard the Philippians’ inner persons, or affections and desires, from harm. Second, he promises that God’s peace will guard their “minds”. The mind obviously refers to the part of a person that enables him to think and reason. Therefore, God’s peace will guard the Philippians’ thinking from harm as well.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He says that God’s peace will guard the Philippians’ hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus”. That is, God the Father won’t just do this on His own, but will do this in the Person and work of the Anointed Savior and King (or Christ) Jesus. In other words, it’s only because Jesus is the Christ, or Anointed Prophet, Priest, and King, of the Philippians, that God will give them His peace. Further, this peace is only given to people by Christ Jesus, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, since Christ is the Mediator between God and people, and the Prince of peace.
Be Rejoicing, Reasonable, Requesting, and Resting
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, you need to rejoice in the Lord in all circumstances, and remember to do so. Do you constantly rejoice because you’re constantly thinking about the Lord? If you don’t have any joy at all, then you might not be a child of God, since one of the evidences that God the Holy Spirit lives in you is that you have joy, according to Galatians 5. The good news is that you can have this joy since God sent His eternal and divine Son to become the man Jesus, to live His perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion against Him. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and made Him our King. He commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Jesus as their Savior from God’s wrath and King to have His forgiveness, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish His enemies forever in a place of torment. If you have no joy, then change your mind about Jesus, and trust in Him for God’s forgiveness and peace.
Second, you’re to let your reasonableness be known to everyone because the Lord is coming soon. Are you reasonable with everyone, no matter how they treat you because you know that the Lord will judge both of you soon?
Third, you’re not to be anxious about anything, but in all situations to let God know your requests through prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Do you do pray with thanksgiving instead of being anxious? If you do, then God’s incomprehensible peace guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
So, constantly rejoice in the Lord, be reasonable with everyone, and thankfully pray about everything, and God’s peace will guard your inner person in Christ.
Most Scripture quotations taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.