Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

It’s an exclamation we’ve heard time and time again, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

December 13, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

It’s an exclamation we’ve heard time and time again, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

But why? Today’s epistle passage is an intriguing composition of seven sentences ranging from two to twenty Greek words long. The sentences have no connecting words except “but” (alla) in 4:6 and “and” (kai) in 4:7. As I said, an intriguing series of exhortations.

The two-fold expression to rejoice echoes what the apostle said in 3:1, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.” Rejoicing is a keynote of this letter. The inclusion of the pantote, translated in the NRSV as “always,” can also be rendered “at all times.” The statement calls for an ongoing activity, one not based upon the particular circumstances of the apostle’s readers. In one way, this adverb points to the future and its possible trials. The idea then is to keep on rejoicing in the Lord at all times, regardless of what may come upon you.

At this point, it is important to remember that Paul wrote this from prison. As portrayed in Acts, Paul and Silas, although beaten and in prison, sang hymns and prayed (Acts 16:25). Thus, the apostle has already demonstrated to his congregation what it means to rejoice in adversity. (At 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul speaks of himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”)

The key to understanding Paul’s exhortation to rejoice is that it is “in the Lord.” This signifies that the Lord is either the object of our rejoicing or its grounding, the one in whom our joy thrives. This continuous rejoicing in the Lord is a very important concept for Paul. It is a distinguishing mark for Christians (see Romans 12:12) and a characteristic of life in the kingdom of God (14:17). It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It becomes evident during times of suffering and trial (Romans 5:3-4; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 8:2-3).

In the third short sentence, the term to epieikes (NRSV: “gentleness”) is tricky to translate. Its use in the Greek language includes “what is fitting,” “magnanimity,” and “reasonableness.” It can also be understood to describe the clemency of a ruler. Undoubtedly, the Philippians would have been aware of the purported benevolence of the Roman emperors. If the Christian life is to be characterized by joy it is also distinguished by a gentleness that is known to all. It is akin to being merciful.

In a world where strict adherence to the letter of the law would lead to injustice, epieikeia knew how to act with fairness. The treatment of Jesus highlights for Paul what this gentleness is all about (see 2 Corinthians 10:1). Thus, the gentleness he describes is the response of a person who has suffered injustice and disgrace.

The “gentleness” that Christians have is to be made “known to all sorts of people” (Philippians 4:5). This idea harkens back to something Paul says earlier in the letter, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Politeuesthe (NRSV: “live your life”) denotes life as a citizen. And so, the idea of living in two communities — the church and the civic community — is intoned with this exhortation to gentleness. It reminds us that the church should not be too preoccupied with its own interests.

The shortest sentence is the fourth: kurios eggus (“the Lord is near”). It combines ethics and eschatology, although its meaning is not entirely clear because of the ambiguity surrounding how eggus is supposed to be understood. Like its English counterpart, eggus can be understood spatially or temporally. Spatially, it means “near” or “close at hand.” If this is true, then “near” here signifies that the Lord is close to or present with the Philippians. Thus, the Lord is aware of their conduct as well as a ready source for their aid. Temporally, it means the Jesus’ second coming is imminent. The early Christians often would say, Marana tha (“Come, O Lord”). Thus, this statement would be a parallel to such exclamations (see 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20), and fits well with what the apostle says in 3:20-21 about the readers eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return from heaven. The truth may be that both understandings are correct. Paul may have intended to include both ideas of time and space in his use of eggus: the Lord whose return is imminent is also continually near his people to guide them.

Why place this admonition here? Well, it could serve to connect what was said earlier about gentleness to what is said afterwards about anxiety. In other words, as he exhorts them to rejoice, the apostle commands them to let their gentleness to be known to all, and not to be anxious.

“Do not worry about anything” is brief and in Greek alliterative, mēden merimnate. It reminds us of Jesus’ statement in Matthew, “Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:35). It is not an easy thing to do. Paul urges his hearers to stop worrying. Yet, when confronted with poverty, hunger, injustice, and the other troubles of life, it is the natural human tendency to be anxious. Regardless of the circumstances that give rise to our anxiety, we are now urged to be anxious “in nothing,” an expression that excludes all exceptions. This is especially poignant given Paul’s imprisonment. As with Jesus, anxiety about these things shows a lack of confidence in God’s care for his children.

We are not only urged to stop worrying about anything, but also exhorted in every situation to make our requests known to God. In 4:6 three synonyms for prayer are heaped together. The Philippians are urged, as a corrective to their anxiety, to let their specific requests be made known to God. The expression, however, is unusual. It suggests that God is unaware of their petitions. Yet, if Paul is echoing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, he should be familiar with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:32, “your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” Paul may be urging Christians to cast all of our cares upon God (cf. 1 Peter 5:7). In doing so, we acknowledge our total dependence upon God.

The longest sentence is the last. Paul tells us that the result of laying out our cares to God is that God’s peace, which is more wonderful than anyone can imagine, will stand guard over our hearts and minds. While we are still vulnerable, we are also assured of God’s concern and protection.