Philippians 4 has long been understood as revealing to us the characteristics of and means to spiritual stability. Even in 2017, the world in which we reside is (surprise!) fallen. Our culture, as with every culture, has been severely infected by ungodliness and many of its forms and expressions from music to dress to language to attitudes are being used, even created, as a way of expressing the unique ungodliness of the spirit of our age. (One writer says that what the Bible calls “the world” is “the bad part of culture.”) The Enemy of men’s souls and his demons wreak havoc on the inhabited earth in countless ways (turn on your TV or look on the Internet—and not just at the news!). And perhaps most damagingly, our fallen human nature—the sin nature or sin principle in the unsaved, and the flesh in the believer—is dreadfully susceptible to the corrupting, deceiving influence of all of the above.
How, then, is the Christian to find and walk in the fullness of spiritual stability? Isn’t our world falling apart around us in almost every sphere of life? When it touches us—our marriage, our church, our children, our job, our finances, our failure—how are we to be stabilized?
Paul has just concluded a grand discussion of personal sanctification, its glorious end and hope (heaven!) and how it is to be achieved, in chapter 3. He shares with us its application in chapter 4—not exhaustively, but immensely practically. The first way our sanctification is to be expressed is in a stable spirit. For in stability comes power, fruitfulness, blessing, usefulness, and a thousand other graces and benefits. Chapter 4 tells us how to get it.
Besides proper and biblical unity within the Body of Christ, stability requires a heart at peace. 4:4-7 demonstrates how the believer can find God’s peace in a hectic world.
A. Pursue Peace (vv. 4-6)
It is perfectly legitimate to preach this paragraph as additional keys to spiritual stability. But it is also most helpful to examine it as giving us the pathway to peace. Indeed, under this heading we will look at three comprehensive attitudes that comprise that pathway.
Joyfulness (v. 4)
In our glandular culture, it is too common to hear preachers overemphasize the emotional life, or to accept modern, unbiblical categories of emotions (more influenced by psychology and humanism than biblical anthropology) and then force them on the text. In response, some preachers and teachers have utterly displaced the role of the inner, affectional life, even teaching that things like love and joy are not emotions (!). While they cannot be reduced to or limited to emotions, in the sense of an inner, though not physical, feeling, both Scripture and experience tell us they are included. In fact, this is one of the great evidences that Christianity is a thoroughly supernatural religion—how else can God legitimately command us to feel a certain way, when we cannot will or make ourselves feel a certain way?
So it is with joy. In this “epistle of joy,” Paul has been exulting in the hope of the gospel and the true joyfulness this should bring to the believer. Is joy a mere accounting term, a non-emotional, detached reckoning that everything is well between you and the Lord? Or does it include this reckoning while embracing the true emotional response of delight, happiness, exultation, and mirth that should stem from it? The answer is obvious. Paul reiterates his command sprinkled throughout this letter: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Then again: “Again I will say, rejoice!” Why? Do you not see? “In the Lord!” All good in your life is from Him. Your future hope is from Him. Your greatest problem in time and eternity (your status and condemnation as rebel against a holy God) has been infallibly and gloriously reversed. Now all you will know is mercy, your death will give way to resurrection life, and you will know the joy of worshipping God overflowingly in all His created gifts during both the Millennium and eternity. This is what the Savior, who is your risen Lord, has done for you. The loss, sin, failure, and corruption of your circumstances are not the final word written over you. Hope, restoration, and glory have been written in the indelible blood of Jesus! That is why you can have joy!
Gentleness (v. 5)
This is a rich word, one that cannot be easily translated by one English term. Big-hearted, sweetly reasonable, kind, forbearing, gracious, gentle, etc., have all been used and all of those words highlight facets of this jewel. Of course, this word emphasizes how we relate to. View, and interact with other people. It is noteworthy that Paul (and our Lord) writes this immediately after mentioning the source of joy. You see, if we focus on our circumstances, our gentleness can be atrophied. But if we focus on the joy that is ours in Christ, we will find a rich foundation for gentleness.
Be aware that if you are consumed with your own ideas—your own way, preferences, demands, opinions, and the like—you cannot have a gentle spirit and you will create conflict in the church. Realize that these self-focused attitudes can be evident—perhaps most evident—when you are ostensibly trying to “help” others or “give counsel” or “hold accountable.” The other person may receive your words as what you do not see they are—a prideful, self-centered, controlling way to be the Holy Spirit in their life. And it will atrophy their love and create resentment and disrupt the unity in the church. For His sake and theirs, pursue a humble heart—and often, a silent tongue. The Lord will cultivate gentleness only as you focus on Him, not insisting on your own way!
Paul adds that gentleness is to be empowered by our conscious sense of the Lord’s presence. The idea of “near” likely encompasses both spatial (in the sense of personal nearness and relational intimacy) and temporal (in the sense of His imminent return) ideas.
Prayerfulness (v. 6)
This attitude is the heart of peace, both internally and externally. Paul commands us to not be anxious about anything (not one thing!), but instead exhorts us to pray about everything. This of course reflects the high view of God testified to with such force throughout our Bibles. Only a sovereign God can be of comfort to the heart weighed down by circumstances. Anxiety, writes Steve Lawson, “compromises our faith in the sovereign purposes of God, focusing on concern for me rather than the care of God.” Focus is a good word regarding worry. Jim Berg has often said that if you know how to worry, you know how to meditate—because worry is simply meditating on the wrong things!
Paul tells us the remedy for anxiety is thankful prayer. Why thankful? Because that is the surest mark off faith in a sovereign God! For a thankful heart both believes God is powerful and wise and strong enough to reverse the circumstance, change the hard heart, bless and provide and restore and heal, and it accepts from His loving hands all things that He appoints, good and bad, believing that He knows best. Thank Him for what He can do. Thank Him that what He will do is the best possible thing. That, dear one, is faith! Press on Him to meet your needs and answer your cries. Trust that He sees what you cannot, and so that what He does is best. Only this confidence in the personal activity and loving investment of a truly sovereign God can be the bedrock of peace (both in you and in the circumstances He may choose to change).
B. The Promise of Peace (v. 7)
This verse demonstrates why little words, especially conjunctions, make all the difference in reading our Bibles. Paul has listed four commands (rejoice, make your gentle spirit visible, do not be anxious, pray with gratitude). Now, he says, “And.” He connects faithful, consistent obedience to these apostolic commands to something: “And the peace of God…will guard [you].” Christian, do you wonder why internally in your soul, and externally in your world, there isn’t peace? Could it be because you have shirked your covenant duty to observe these orders from heaven? Paul says the peace passes all comprehension. This doesn’t really mean that the peace is not intellectually understandable, but that it is beyond our ability to manufacture or that even makes sense to the human mind. It is wholly supernatural and other. The peace will guard our hearts and minds—here, likely drawing a distinction between the affections (heart) and the thought life (mind). “Guard” is a military term used for round-the-clock personal watching over a criminal by a guard. Here, the guarding is just as intense, but done by a sovereign God over the redeemed spirit of His beloved son or daughter. It may even be that God wills peace to your situation (He often does). But He certainly bequeaths peace personally to you.
Where does peace come from? Note how Paul closes: The peace comes “in Christ Jesus.” Our Lord tells us that we are to e of good cheer, for He has overcome the fallen world system, a fitting close to the words He spoke to the disciples that they might have peace (John 16:33). The commands Paul has given as means to peace are simply a way for us to express and experience the full union we have with our wonderful Lord. “Christ” is our Lord’s title—He is the One anointed by God to save and rule. “Jesus” is His human name—the personal name of the glorious theanthropic Person given when, in about 5 B.C. the one, sovereign, eternal, uncreated, matchless, perfect God took to Himself a human nature and not merely robed Himself in flesh, nor indwelt a man, but literally became a man. He did not send someone else—Yahweh God came Himself! The name of the God-man is “Jesus.” In this One, this anointed Savior-King, this glorious God-man, in this One alone—in the covenant He makes, in the promises He gives, in the words He speaks Himself and through His apostles, in the death He died, in the glorious resurrection He experienced, in the victorious ascension He made, and in the soon-coming kingdom He will bring to everlasting and glorious fulfillment—can we have peace. For He has dealt with our sin and condemnation, is dealing decisively with our fallenness and that of our world, and will one day complete all of His promises as He judges the world for its sin, returns victoriously to set up His thousand-year Kingdom, and restores and resurrects us and His earth that we might know, love, and serve Him as embodied worshippers forever, when total peace—shalom—will be the air we breathe.