Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9
Today’s lectionary passage belongs to the last chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
It features practical advice for a life centered in Christ. This means that, in terms of contents, the audience should not expect anything new.
What Paul writes here is both a recapitulation and application of what he has already stated in previous chapters of his letter, as the attentive reader will notice. It functions like a well-chosen sending hymn: It reminds the congregation what the worship including its sermon was all about and provides a practical edge. In my commentary, I will reflect on the most important themes of this passage.
Paul encourages his audience: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This sentence alone captures two key topics of the letter, namely joy and theological focus. As for the first, Paul repeats almost verbatim what he stated earlier in 3:1, and already there he admitted to being a bit redundant.
Indeed, Paul opened his letter with remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,” thus employing the term as a metonymy for what causes him to be cheerful. The list shows that “joy” is a central concept for Paul in this letter.
Is such a reminder necessary? Is it not somewhat odd to urge people to be joyful? This is probably true; however, if we could measure the “degree” of joyfulness in our Christian congregations, then we would probably have to admit that advice for more joy rather than less might be quite expedient.
We are too often focused on sin instead of celebrating that we are forgiven. We complain too often about the lack of holiness instead of remembering what we are as children of God. We are too often frustrated by feelings of weakness instead of being delighted about the strength of the Holy Spirit working in us. Yes, we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
Which brings us to the second key topic of Philippians: theological and Christological focus. It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.
Specifically, this joy is not the same as “fun,” and following Jesus is certainly not always “fun.” Just as Jesus, so Paul was countercultural. This was manifest in the fact that he was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. In the end, his faith cost him his life, as it did for many who believed in Jesus. This was not fun. Those who know Jesus have made this experience for the past 2000 years.
So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God and saved. It has to do with where the focus of one’s life is or, to employ a famous phrase by Paul Tillich, with one’s “ultimate concern.” The Apostle Paul could rejoice because he did not fear death. A few years before penning his Letter to the Philippians, he wrote to the congregations in Rome: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35).
The knowledge that Christ has overcome death gave Paul this certainty. This is what Tillich had in mind when explaining: “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology vol. 1, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 12).
The focus on Christ, however, also has immediate ramifications for the here and now. Paul advises: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5). Paul expected that Christ’s return was imminent, and this would have consequences on how people who believed in him would behave. For instance, they would “not worry about anything” (verse 6a), referencing what Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25). Instead, trust in God leads to prayer (v. 6b).
In addition, the theological and Christological focus help to overcome human disagreements.
Previously Paul had asked his audience to strive “side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). We may assume that such advice was necessary because different opinions prevailed among his audience. In 4:2, we now read (according to NRSV): “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (A brief comment on pronunciation: The Greek name of the first woman should be rendered “Euhodia;” it is composed of Greek eu –“well” and hodos — “way, road”; thus euhodoo means “to go well, succeed.”)
This is proof that tensions in congregations are no modern problem. The focus on God is the best remedy when no longer ultimate, but preliminary concerns start to dominate our agendas. It alone guarantees “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (4:7) — and hence empowers us to overcome human differences.