Lectionary Commentaries for October 15, 2017
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14

Erick J. Thompson

This parable comes across as a difficult text about judgement. Yet, it has some important and useful aspects that commend itself to preaching

First, the language of sending and inviting is used repeatedly. Working with the common notion that the King in the parable is God, it always amazes me how much God continues to reach out to humanity. In this and many other parables, the King sends out his messengers with the good news again and again. This is a God who will not give up on us, and that is great news indeed!

Second, there is the delightful surprise that the king invites everyone to the wedding banquet, both good and bad. In a world so willing to throw blame and shame around, this can be good news indeed. Third, there is some thought that this is actually two separate parables, and may be trying to heighten the sense that this parable is about grace and mercy rather than judgement and punishment.

Looking at today’s gospel of Matthew 22, the first 10 verses have a Lucan parallel, but the remaining 5 do not. Starting in verse 11, there is a second parable that is added onto the first.1 This second continues the themes of judgement and ends with a potentially difficult verse for preaching, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” One commentator suggests that the themes of inclusion and exclusion that suddenly arise here are related to those of whether the guests show mercy to others.2 So, it is indeed a judgmental verse with regards to whether or not those who come to the wedding feast are willing to show mercy, or, in my interpretation, whether they are willing to have mercy shown to them.

My homiletic focus in this parable begins with how people answer the question, “Am I OK?” or in theological terms, “Am I justified?”. If we talk about the wedding banquet as people’s salvation, the banquet would provide God’s answer to whether or not we are justified, or okay. God’s gift of salvation can answer the question of worth and belonging that plague so many people. How do we answer the “Am I OK?” question in our own lives, and are we willing to let God’s answer be enough? Or do we find ourselves needing to find our own human answers that keep us from being able to trust our inclusion in God’s wedding banquet?

If God has invited people to the wedding banquet, they have already “earned” their spot in the kingdom of heaven. So, the question is: why would they reject it? Why would they give up salvation? To use the language of the parable, why would one pass up free food and drink? The answer lies their responses: they either reject God and God’s message of mercy by killing the messengers, or they have other things they are busy with. They have their jobs, their property; things they have built themselves, things they are using to define their worth in the world. This is so similar to our own confusion or conflation of vocation and justification.

Our culture resonates deeply with Christopher Nolan’s Batman when he says, “it’s what we do that defines us.” For many of us, our world creates jobs and family situations where our performance is deeply tied to our sense of worth. Many people in our culture want to be the best employees or best parents because that will dictate whether or not they are okay. Simply read some obituaries or listen to a few eulogies and you’ll find endless testimony to the best grandma or grandpa who worked the hardest, etc. For many people, we know that we are okay, that we are justified, because we have fought the good fight, done our duty, been a good person, etc.

In the parable, the king responds by turning our systems on their head. By sending out his troops to destroy the people and their “city,” the king is destroying our human notions that what we have done and built has value when it comes to the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the king invites everyone in the main streets: the good and the bad, the non-elite. No longer are we worried about the elite, the wealthy, or those who control society. Instead, God is declaring his preference for the marginalized. This might be like hearing that one’s workplace is giving bonuses to everyone; even the bad employees, or even employees who have been fired.

The text continues by adding insult to injury by throwing out those who show up at the wedding banquet who aren’t willing to be completely covered in God’s mercy, that is, the wedding gown. This additional parable stuck on the end of the parallel from Luke signifies that for the writer of Matthew there is only one way to the wedding banquet: through Christ.

To put on the wedding robe provided by the king is to take on the garments of Christ; when we come to the wedding feast, we are clothed like everyone else in mercy. If we refuse this mercy by instead relying on our own works or accomplishments, we stand in judgement. As Paul reminds us, those who wish to be judged under the law will face the consequences.

If we want to prove ourselves worthy, we will indeed feel the sting of “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Yet, if we remember that God’s grace is what saves us, we won’t worry how we are clothed, or who else God has decided to include in the Wedding Banquet. There is no room for piety or first rate Christians in the kingdom of heaven. There is only room for those whom God has chosen. The trick is, can we live with a God who doesn’t care how great we are at our jobs, and who has chosen everyone?


1. W.F. Albright & C. S. Mann, Matthew, The Anchor Bible 26 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 269.

2. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 823.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

Christopher B. Hays

Isaiah 25:1-9 begins with a hymn of praise to a victorious God.

The opening phrases (“you are my God; I will exalt you”) allude to the ancient “Song of Sea” from Exodus, when the Lord led the people out of slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 15:2).

While a victorious God seems desirable, the image of a Divine Warrior will trouble some people — and perhaps it should, when the costs of warfare are so clear and the benefits so murky. Then again, the specific content of this hymn casts the matter in a different light. The Exodus is the model for God’s victory in more ways than one: In the same way as God delivered an oppressed people from an imperial power in Egypt, so too this passage expresses a special divine concern for the poor and the needy who need shelter from the ruthless.

The original historical context of this passage is the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, during the reign of Josiah, in the late 7th century. After more than a century of being a vassal to Assyria and paying dearly for the privilege of survival, Judah found itself free. It had nothing to do with that freedom — the Babylonians and Medes, far away in Mesopotamia, had conquered Assyria. However, the prophets knew that God worked through foreign empires as well, and they perceived the hand of God in these geopolitical events.

The ruined “city” (Isaiah 25:2) was an Assyrian outpost near Jerusalem, the remains of which has been discovered at Ramat Rahel. (The Assyrian practice of “filling the face of the earth with cities” is also attested by Isaiah 14:21.) The ruined city is contrasted with Zion (“this mountain,” Isaiah 25:6) both here and especially in 26:1’s reference to a “strong city.” These are examples of “Zion theology,” the idea that the Lord had had chosen Jerusalem as his holy city and its temple as his home, and would protect them. The tradition was already of significant antiquity by the late 7th century, and its appearances at this historical moment are understandable: It must have seemed like a miracle indeed to the Judahites that their city had survived while the capitals of the mighty Assyrian empire were falling!

In this passage and others in Isaiah, the Lord is portrayed not simply as victorious, but as a victorious king — one who has defeated and replaced human rulers. (Many psalms reinforce this image with the refrain “The Lord is king!”) This was a very characteristic rhetorical/theological tactic on the part of biblical authors. It is possible that it had its roots in the very origins of Israel, in the conflict between God and pharaoh portrayed in Exodus 1-15. In Josiah’s time, however, it took a significant new dimension with the propagation of the Deuteronomic law book, which was said to have been found in the temple by Josiah’s officials (2 Kings 22).

Among other goals, Deuteronomy explicitly subverted the Assyrian treaties that the kings of Judah were forced to sign. Esarhaddon issues a similar call for the vassals to love his heir: “You shall love Ashurbanipal … your lord, like yourselves.” But Deuteronomy responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; compare to Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:30). The language of “love” had been used to express political faithfulness in diplomatic texts and letters throughout Ancient Near East history — now it took on a more explicitly theological weight.

In his role as the victorious sovereign, it also behooved the Lord to host a victory feast; this was also the expectation of a human king. The instances of banqueting as an expression of power within the Bible include the feasts hosted by Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20), Solomon (1 Kings 3:15; 8:62-66; 10:5), and Ahasueras (Esther 1). One can also point to examples of failed or thwarted attempts to claim power through table hosting, such as those of Nabal (1 Samuel 25:36) and Belshazzar (Daniel 5). Feasting could be a mechanism of inclusion or exclusion, like any social gathering that one hosts. The vision of Isaiah 25:6 is strikingly inclusive, including “all peoples”; it is the vision of a time of ambition and abundance.

The feast that the Lord hosts is no quotidian meal. Even the vocabulary used for the aged, strained wines and the bone marrow is uncommon. These were elite items for the culture, though the wine is probably something like what we are used to now; more commonly wine was served fairly young and with sediment from the lees. As for bone marrow, it is a sadly uncommon sight on the middle-class Western table; usually taken from the roasted femur of beef cattle, it is exquisite — far more flavorful even than butter.

The period of oppression and scarcity — along with the implicit threat that it might continue despite the removal of the Assyrians — is symbolized by death itself. For an ancient Near Eastern audience, the image of death being swallowed up would have been a delightful reversal, because Death was commonly deified in the Levantine world as a Great Swallower. This is most clearly exemplified in the Ugaritic Baal Myth, in which the eponymous god is temporarily defeated and swallowed by Death. It is also attested in Isaiah 5:14 (alluded to in last week’s lectionary commentary): “Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure; the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down…” So Death, known to swallow all things, even gods, is now swallowed up by the Lord.

Many of the features of this passage, though grounded in ancient history and religion, have proven powerful and adaptable to readers ever since. Since the city is not explicitly named, interpreters have connected it to the fall of countless ancient cities, and certainly may have interpreted its message of God’s power to overthrow empires homiletically to apply to contemporaneous situations: the God of the Exodus continues to cast down the powers that oppose Him (Isaiah 2:11-17; 5:15; 10:33; 13:11; Revelation 18).

The victory over Death has also opened up interpretive horizons beyond even the imagination of the author. Everyone lives, to some degree, under the threat of mortality, and so the passage’s message can speak to anyone. To some, death looms more directly in their line of sight, and here the Gospel of the Old Testament may be particularly comforting: Death has no power over God; quite the opposite: “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord” (Proverbs 15:11). The divine defeat of Death is re-enacted in Revelation 20:14.

Of course, within Christian theology, God’s victory over death is enacted centrally in the cross of Jesus Christ. One of the classical Christian ways of understanding atonement is that Christ saves humankind by overcoming the power of death and evil. That model has been prevalent for centuries within Eastern Orthodoxy, and it gained popularity among a wider variety of Christians in the wake of Gustaf Aulén’s 1930 book, Christus Victor. This view of atonement is organically linked to a different view of sin — reversing the emphasis of the classical western idea that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Instead, the Orthodox have noticed more than other traditions the significant biblical witness to the idea that death is the cause of sin, not the other way around.

One of the primary proof texts for this view of sin and death is Hebrews 2:14-15, which says that through his death and resurrection, Jesus freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Drawing on that passage, John Chrysostom preached, “He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying… [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil.”1 This understanding, however, remains distinctly undervalued among Western Christians, especially Protestants.

The historical, political, existential, and theological connections of this passage may appear to lead off in different directions, but in reality they are part of a larger whole: It assumes that there is no true life without human justice, and justice is harder to come by where political structures are inimical to it. Conversely, where life flourishes, death loses some of its sting. The work of ensuring that life can flourish within an environment of God’s shalom is thus participation in the divine defeat of death.


1. John Chrysostom, Homily IV (on Hebrews 2), par. 6.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

Anathea Portier-Young

The people behold the statue Aaron has poured and shaped from molten metal and declare, “this is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

This statue, at last, they can see and touch. They can bring offerings before it, feast and dine with their chosen god, and truly celebrate with this god the miracle of their deliverance.

Before this moment, the people have struggled to know that God is in their midst (Exodus 17:7). By day they see a cloud, by night a column of fire (Exodus 13:21). Cloud obscures vision, hiding its secrets within. Fire defies touch, creating distance between the God within and the people without. They have seen and eaten strange bread and birds that appeared upon the ground (Exodus 16:13-14). They were told that this food is how they would know that God is the one who led them to freedom (Exodus 16:12, 31). But for so long they did not see God’s face and they did not hear God’s own voice. They asked questions of God by speaking to God’s servant Moses (Exodus 18:15). Moses became their living link to the hidden presence that eluded their senses.

At the foot of Sinai God called out to Moses and promised to speak to him from a cloud, so that the people would at last hear God’s voice and trust in God’s presence and God’s servant (Exodus 19:3, 9). Yet even this encounter would be circumscribed. What exactly would the people hear? For God and Moses would be on the mountain, while the people remained below. They could not go up it or even touch its edges, on pain of death (19:12). What they heard were not words of assurance, but the forbidding sound of thunder (19:16, 19).

If they had been led into the wilderness to worship their deity, as Moses had so often told Pharaoh they would do (Exodus 5:1 and passim), would they not there, at last, be able to see God? They were permitted to offer sacrifice from a distance (Exodus 24:1-2). Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders, were permitted to “go up” — we are not told how far — and there they indeed saw God (24:9-10). The chiefs of the people also saw God as they feasted (24:11). Perhaps now these leaders would testify to their vision and all would grasp with certainty that God is with them, not this once only, but always.

But God ghosted. The feet that stood on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10) seemed to have turned and walked away. And now Moses has disappeared, too (24:12-18). A month passed. Then ten days more (24:18). And the people have heard nothing from this man who did not grow up among them and yet claimed to do the work and speak the word of YHWH, God of Israel. Perhaps Moses was dead. What would he eat on that mountain, anyway? “This Moses,” say the people to Aaron, in tones of distance, disowning, and disaffection, “we don’t know…” (Exodus 32:1). So you — the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.

And strangely, the brother of Moses, the man who would later be consecrated high priest of Israel (Leviticus 8-9), did not balk at their request. He asked the people to give over their jewelry (Exodus 32:2) — rings of gold adorning their ears, gifts of plunder from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36), tokens of an economy of slavery with which they continued to pierce their own flesh and adorn the bodies of their children. And when they did so (Exodus 32:2), Egypt’s twice-stolen wealth took on new shape, contoured into an image of strength, virility, and power (32:4).

The phrase “from the land of Egypt” occurs 5 times in this passage (Exodus 32:1, 4, 7, 8, 11; also 32:23), making the density of repetition of this phrase greater here than anywhere else in Scripture (Exodus 12 contains the phrase four times). This recurring motif raises three questions: who led the people out of Egypt? what now separates them from the life they knew there? How will they move forward into the land of promise?

Removing the gold adornments plundered from their captors might have been a first step away from the legacy of slavery in Egypt. But in crafting an idol from the wealth of Egypt, the people only moved backward. Moses must now challenge and negotiate with God in hopes of ensuring that God’s true presence — not the visible and tangible but false substitute of a carved, taurine image — will indeed remain with the people and lead them to the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel — Israel the man, and Israel the people descended from him (Exodus 32:13).

It is easy to mistake our own creations for our God. It is tempting to shape our plundered riches, our wages, and even the reparations for our losses into an image that pleases our senses, mollifies our anxiety, and invites admiration from our neighbors. But that thing we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing may symbolize strength and power. It may personify virility, or femininity, or aspects of both or neither; it may embody rebellion or conformity, generosity or greed. But as close as we draw to it, as much as we celebrate it and place it at the center of our lives, it did not lead us to freedom and will not lead us to our promised inheritance. It will tether us to slavery, to a worldview in which people are expendable, interchangeable commodities. It will moor us in the impatience of our ignorance and fear. We may dance with it for a day, but soon find that it has led us to our death.

The hard way forward reckons with a divine presence that continues to elude our senses even as it fills and animates them. The hard way forward knows the pain of absence and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape of freedom. And the living link between us and our God is the one who challenges and negotiates with God for our forgiveness, for God’s enduring presence among us, and for the fulfillment of every promise God has made to God’s people.


Commentary on Psalm 23

James Howell

The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favorite.1

And yet for all its familiarity, there may be some nuances to the Psalm we have missed, some reflections scholars might share to deepen our sense of the most comforting words ever composed.

Consider one four letter word in verse four: thou. The second-person pronoun “thou” is old English, a relic from the 1611 King James Version. The vast majority of the time we prefer modern translations of the Bible — but Christians cling to a 400-year-old translation of Psalm 23. Why is this? Could it be that elevated language, words with some lineage and dignity, are appropriate to the grandeur, the majesty, the immeasurable grace of God who is indeed our shepherd?

And here is a fascinating item: James Limburg points out that in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, “Thou art with me.”2 Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.

God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.

This marvelous news draws our attention again to the Thou. For the first three verses of the Psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me … he restores my soul.” But with the Thou, the third person shifts to second person: “for Thou art with me, thy rod … thou preparest a table …” Instead of talking about God, the Psalmist begins to talk to God; instead of God in the head, God is a friend in the heart. A conversation happens, a relationship grows. This is faith, the only true comfort.

If we genuinely and in the marrow of our being believe that God is with us, then the only logical consequence would be, “I shall not want.”

We’ve read it, uttered it, delighted in it: but have we thought about it? Or lived it out in reality? I shall not want? Our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. In our consumer culture, I shall want, I shall always want. I shall never stop all my wanting because the mall entices me with ever new, shiny, unnecessary objects, and I am instructed from childhood on to want — and not merely to want, but to have.

I shall not want? “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the Lord is the shepherd, then I am a sheep, and the reason sheep need a shepherd is simple: sheep nibble themselves lost.

Sheep are not brilliant creatures, and we cannot be flattered that the Psalm thinks of us as sheep. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.

The Hebrew original is perhaps better translated, “I shall lack nothing,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” What do I lack? Well, I lack an iPhone or a house on the coast. I lack a fully-funded pension and I lack _____. We can fill in the blank endlessly.

But it is more to ask “What do I lack?” in the sense of “What really matters that I do not have?” What, at the hour of death, would I dare not lack? The answers aren’t iPhones or vacation houses. Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), who claimed to be good and had plenty of stuff. What did Jesus say? “One thing you still lack.”

We don’t lack lots of things: we lack just one. The one thing we lack is intimacy with God. The one and only thing that can cause us to say, “I shall not want,” or “I lack no good thing,” is God. Nothing else. Just the Lord who is a good shepherd to his sheep.

God is our satisfaction. God is good enough. Or, to be truer, God exceeds whatever we may think we desire.

If “Thou art with me” is the focal point of the Psalm, and if “I shall not want” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God, then the end of our life with God is this: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Why do we want stuff like iPhones and vacation homes? Is it sheer coveting? I don’t think so. We want communication devices because we long to connect. We want a house, or a better house, because no matter how far we travel, no matter how happy or sad our nuclear family might have been, we carry inside a yearning for home. In our mobile society, we may be clueless about where that might be, or if it really exists. But we still want, above all else, to go home.

Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”3  Or consider this: if you are lucky, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small, but as a child it was large in love, in special treats, in cousins and fun. It was another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love.

Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?

Isaac Watts often recast Psalms into slightly different language. His metric version of the 23rd Psalm is eloquent, elegant, and moving: “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may Your House be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”4

Like a child at home. Yes, some children bear the misfortune of a home that is more warfare than peace, more division than love. But the fact that we recoil at the idea of any child anywhere not enjoying peace and love at home is evidence that God has wired into our hearts a keen sense of a proper destiny, which looks like me as a boy at my grandmother’s table or on my grandfather’s lap.

Various happenings in our life strike us as urgent. They make us anxious, or perhaps we have some fun or face trials. But it is all a preparation for a grand homecoming, when we will “find a settled rest … no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” Or as the Psalmist sang, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6).

1 Commentary by James Howell first published on this site May 3, 2009.

2 James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

3 T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, 1943.

4 Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” 1719.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

Troy Troftgruben

Today’s reading recaps several major themes of Philippians. In fact, readers today often prefer the recap portions over most of the preceding letter.

Recapping earlier appeals (Philippians 4:1-3)

Although distinctive statements of their own, Philippians 4:1-3 serves primarily to conclude Philippians 3:1-21 — and to reiterate earlier themes (Philippians 1:27-2:18). The opening word (“Therefore”) clearly connects 4:1 to what precedes, as does the language “in this way” (4:1). The charge “stand firm in the Lord in this way” rounds out Paul’s appeals to imitate his example (3:17) and to live as citizens of heaven (3:20). But 4:1 also repeats motifs from earlier: Paul’s longing (1:7-8), joy (1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29), and standing firm in faith (1:27; 2:16; also 1:3-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 15:58). And so “stand firm in the Lord” summarizes much of the letter’s message.

Philippians 4:2-3 may seem like a random shout-out to random people. But these verses resonate squarely with the appeal to unity (“be of the same mind,” 4:2, compare to 2:2) that runs throughout the letter (1:27; 2:1-4, 14). Contrary to popular interpretation, the appeal of 4:2 does not require that Euodia and Syntyche were squabbling — in the same way that earlier appeals (2:1-4) do not require major community strife (compare to 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Moral exhortation in the Greco-Roman world often encouraged behavior that was already happening (see Philippians 2:12-13; 4:9).

Nothing is known about Euodia, Syntyche, or Clement, except that they “struggled beside” (synathleo) Paul for the gospel (Philippians 4:3; same word as in 1:27). Nor do we know the identity of the “loyal companion” (literally “genuine yokefellow,” 4:3), despite many interesting proposals (for example Luke, Lydia, a wife of Paul). What is noteworthy is that most of the few Philippians named in the letter are women. This, combined with the naming of “bishops and deacons” in the greeting (Philippians 1:1), implies a strong likelihood that women served as leaders in this community — an idea further supported by the narrative of Acts 16:11-15.

Final exhortations (Philippians 4:4-9)

Paul now turns to several independent words of exhortation — a closing strategy used in other letters (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22).

Paul begins with a double emphasis on rejoicing (Philippians 4:4). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) alternate translation (“farewell”) is theoretically possible, but clashes with earlier usage of the verb (Philippians 1:18; 2:17-18, 28; 3:1) and stands at odds with the letter’s strong emphasis on joy (Philippians 1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29; 4:1). To see Paul doubly emphasize rejoicing at this point is no surprise. What is remarkable is to hear this from an imprisoned man (Philippians 1:7, 13-14, 17; 4:22). This means his vision of “joy” and “rejoicing” is neither superficial nor short-lived: it is a kind firmly anchored “in the Lord” for the long haul, despite obstacles.

Similarly striking is Paul’s ensuing emphasis on gentleness, lack of worry, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace (Philippians 4:5-7) — even though his incarceration would give ample reason for anger and anxiety. Paul encourages “gentleness” toward all people and all manner of prayer — with thanksgiving — toward God. The various words for prayer (prayer, supplication, requests) are virtual synonyms. Though it may look like an add-on, “thanksgiving” in Paul’s letters is an oft-named activity of believers (for example 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 3:9; 5:18; 2 Corinthians 4:15; 9:11-12). Finally, the brief sentence “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5b) stands amid these exhortations as a word of encouragement, emphasizing the certainty of believers’ forthcoming vindication (compare to Romans 13:12; 1 Corinthians 15:58; also James 5:8).

That the peace of God “will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” plays on Paul’s situation as a guarded prisoner of Rome (Philippians 1:13-14, 17; compare to 2 Corinthians 11:32; Galatians 3:23). To describe this peace as “surpass[ing] all understanding” not only means defying all human reason (see Ephesians 3:19-20). It also alludes to the distinctive difference and superiority that characterize divine peace in comparison to human counterparts (compare to John 14:27).

“Finally,” Paul encourages believers to “think about” things that exemplify specific virtues: things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). The verb “think about” (logizesthe) means “take account of” or “reckon” (see NRSV alternate translation note). This implies not dreamy meditation, but an intentional inventory-taking of where the Philippians have experienced such things in Paul and elsewhere. This ties directly into Paul’s closing word: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen I me” (Philippians 4:9; see also 3:17; 4:1).

Joy, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace

It is no coincidence that joy, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace all appear as emphases in the same brief passage. The same Paul who encourages prayer and thanksgiving amid ominous circumstances also emphasizes joy and the reality of a peace beyond all understanding. These four things are related. Thanksgiving often yields joy, and prayer yields peace — both fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; compare to Romans 14:17) — in ways that defy human reason and testify to a God who hears and responds to human prayers. These emphases — joy, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace — together reflect a spirituality that is vibrant, in step with God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 22; Romans 8:6), and firmly grounded “in the Lord.”

The God of peace

Not only does Paul speak of a peace that “surpasses all understanding,” but he associates peace with God’s very nature: “the God of peace” (Philippians 4:8-9; so also 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 15:33; 16:20; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 2 Corinthians 13:11). Paul’s notion of peace likely builds on Hebrew Bible notions of shalom (wholeness). More important, “peace” for Paul is not merely an individual experience, but often occurs among authentic community (Romans 14:19; 15:33; 1 Corinthians 7:15; see also Colossians 3:15; Ephesians 2:14-17; 4:3). For Paul, God’s peace is not an optional add-on, but part of the experience of authentic faith and spirituality. In living this out, “the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).