Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7
“Joy” and “peace” are themes we encounter throughout the season of advent: on cards, holiday decorations, and in music streaming forth from malls and churches.
Yet experience shows us that “joy” and “peace” are often elusive, especially at this time of year. Loneliness, family tensions, inflated expectations, unexpected crises, grief, and national events make them seem just beyond our grasp, except perhaps in the tinsel of holiday films.
The allusiveness of “joy” and “peace” invite us to pause and reflect on what it is we are seeking when we speak of “joy” and “peace.” Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or do “joy” and “peace” represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit?
Philippians 4:4-7 offers a helpful framework for exploring “joy” and “peace” in relation to the life of faith. Although the verses are grammatically structured as independent clauses, they are thematically inter-related. Considered as a whole, they suggest that the substance of joy and peace is found not so much in the emotions they evoke, as in the attitudes, behaviors, and relationships in which they are grounded.
In verse 4, Paul urges the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The use of the present imperative signals that “rejoicing” is a habitual attitude that informs behavior.1 The inclusion of the adverb “always” suggests “regardless of circumstances” (so 2 Corinthians 6:10). The critical phrase, however, is “in the Lord.”
There are many things that can be a cause of rejoicing: good news; an unexpected reprieve; achievement of a hard-won goal. In some cases, the “joy” will be fleeting; where the cause of rejoicing has an enduring impact, the “joy” will continue. To “rejoice in the Lord always” points to a “joy” that is not only enduring, but that sustains us even when we are worn down by life challenges. This requires something more than seasonal cheerfulness. It is a “joy” rooted in an ongoing relationship, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good (see also Romans 8:35-39).
Critical, here, is relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but also our relationship in community. For Paul, “rejoicing” is cultivated through mutual support:
- “I am glad and rejoice with all of you — and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (2:17-18; see also Romans 12:15).
- And, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me” (4:10; see also 1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 7:16).
This does not necessarily mean that everyone always agrees or gets along. Rather, it reminds us that each of us has a role to play in creating the supportive relationships that are the foundation of “joy” and a cause for “rejoicing.”
In 4:5, Paul continues the theme of relationship with the command, “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Here he employs an aorist imperative, which emphasizes a specific, rather than general, kind of conduct.2 In English, “gentleness” is often associated with being “meek and mild.” In Greek, epieikes, is associated with tolerance, “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom.”3 To embody epieikes means to recognize that we have a choice in how we behave towards others. It is not just about being nice or kind; it is about the exercise of power.
Paul contextualizes this command by following it with “the Lord is near.” Elsewhere, Paul uses the word epieikes (“gentleness”) to describe Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1). It is paired with prautes, which is translated “meekness” but is better defined as “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.”4 To choose not to exercise power, or to exercise it differently, requires self-awareness and humility. This is the power of Christ. It is in this way that Paul says we are to engage everyone.
We are sometimes tempted to insist on exercising every right of law or custom because of fear or anxiety. In Philippians 4:6, Paul counters these fears and anxieties with the command, “do not worry about anything.” The use of the present imperative is a helpful reminder that Paul is urging us to cultivate an attitude grounded in practice: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Paul is not saying that there is nothing to worry about or that the things we worry about are unimportant. Rather he places our anxieties, fears, and concerns in the context of our relationship to God. We are invited to make ourselves known to God, and to ourselves, at our points of greatest vulnerability. Further, we are told to do so with thanksgiving. Before we know the results. Thanksgiving, in this way, becomes an expression of our openness to process, because we have confidence that we will be supported and sustained by the One who is faithful.
Paul concludes in 4:7 with the promise of peace. The peace that Paul speaks of is a gift because it is produced by God. Yet it is not a gift to be received passively; to be set on a shelf and admired. Nor is it an act of divine intervention that suddenly makes all things right (at least, from our perspective). It is a peace that pushes the limits of our imaginations, challenging us to constantly reconsider what it is that makes for peace, for whom, and how. Because God’s imagination is larger than ours.
It is also a peace that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. To guard is to protect. There is no shortage of evidence that our hearts and minds, two powerful forces that drive our imaginations and shape our attitudes and behaviors, need protecting — not only from the influence of outside forces, but sometimes from ourselves. God’s peace protects us by drawing us deeper into relationship with Christ, the source also of our joy.
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 721-22.
- Wallace, 719-20.
- W.F. Bauer, W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 371.
- Bauer, Danker Arndt & Gingrich, 861.