Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Ikat Robes
"Ikat Robes." Image by Maia C via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

October 15, 2017

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

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).