Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7
Finding joy in a period of waiting is not easy. For Paul the waiting is occurring in a prison cell, and the outcome does not look promising. For the Philippians, the waiting occurs as they long for news of their beloved church leader, their pastor and friend, their partner in mission. They have even been waiting for Epaphroditus, one of their own, whom they sent to minister to Paul and who came close to death, risking his life for the work of Christ (2:25-30). They have been eager to hear news and hoping for a good outcome.
Waiting is hard. In an age before social media, instant news, and cell phones, this little letter must bear the hopes, longings, and dreams of the apostle as he writes to spur the church on to faithfulness even under the threat of suffering and in the face of uncertainty. What consumes the apostle’s final advice to this faith community in the midst of such hardship and anticipation? Nothing less than pure joy.
Like a person reflecting on a long, loving relationship, Paul recounts memories of how the Philippians have cared for him when no one else did (4:15). They have supported him and his ministry from the earliest days. They have even sent Epaphroditus to care for him while he was in prison awaiting trial (4:18). They have done nothing short of partner with Paul in ministry.
Paul refers to their relationship as koinonia, a fellowship that connotes an investment in a common cause, the goal of proclaiming the gospel. And it is for that gospel that Paul is now in chains and their beloved brother Epaphroditus has nearly died. This is a special letter indeed, and it comes at a difficult time. Death looms in the letter (1:12-30; 2:25-30; 3:13-14, 20-21; 4:14). The stakes are high for Paul, for Epaphroditus, and for the church whom Paul will call to exhibit the mind of Christ (2:1-11).
In this week’s passage, Paul is closing the letter with final exhortations, and these exhortations stem from Paul’s certainty in what God is doing to rectify the whole world. He will urge the Philippians to rejoice, twice in verse 4, but in the letter there are sixteen instances of Paul employing the language of joy or rejoicing.
Joy, for Paul, is not a feeling that is dependent upon circumstances. It is a theological act. It is choosing to reflect on God’s actions to redeem the cosmos even when all the present circumstances might indicate that some other power had won. Joy stems from his vision of God’s super-exaltation of Christ after his super-humiliation with death on a treasonous cross. Joy stems from the vision that all the world will recognize the sovereignty of Jesus when he returns. “The Lord is near,” Paul reminds them (verse 5). Whatever they are suffering now, whatever grief they are experiencing as they long for his safety, whatever fear they have for their own futures, the apostle reminds them that the real King is near. Their citizenship is not from this world (3:20).
Have no anxiety. Be worried about nothing, says the apostle from his prison cell. The naysayers will come (3:2). The believers’ faith will be tested. They may suffer as Paul has suffered. But Paul urges them to think like Jesus who stood in solidarity with the oppressed by taking on the form of a slave (2:7). Yes, Jesus died on a cross. Yes, the powers killed him. But a far greater power exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name. This is the God whom they serve. This is the reason that they can rejoice.
This God did not abandon Jesus and will not abandon them. “The Lord is near.” The Lord is so near that they can speak to God and take their concerns to this All-Powerful King.
The peace of God will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. This peace is not simply calmness or the absence of anxiety. This peace is better than understanding. A more literal translation of hyperecho in verse 7 would be to have power over. In other words, peace has power over, excels, and surpasses reasoning. It is superior to human understanding because peace comes from God. It stems from the work of God’s Spirit to bring about God’s new creation. Peace, after all, is God’s shalom—wholeness, restoration, and goodness. The presence of this peace can give joy even in the most difficult of times.
This is why the apostle can urge the community to be peaceable to all: “Let all people know your gentleness” (verse 5). How the believers behave in the hard times reveals a lot about their vision of good news. If they have to bring about their own justice, the Philippians are doomed. Epaphroditus nearly died, and the future does not look bright for Paul. They are in a system and a situation that seems hopeless. Paul places the believers’ hope back in God whose power is greater than that of Rome or any powers that might try to thwart this good news.
In this season of Advent, in a time of waiting and longing, we read the exhortation to rejoice. Rejoicing does not negate or turn a blind eye to despair. Rejoicing does not somehow make the suffering go away or minimize the injustice. Rather, rejoicing acknowledges that we are serving the one and only God who can rectify the wrongs, who can—and has—stood in solidarity with the oppressed. Rejoicing in the face of gross injustice is a courageous act, a theological hope lived out in the present that stems from a vision of God’s shalom—a shalom so glorious that it is transforming and claiming life even in the present.
Rome does not get the last word. The suffering of the prison cell does not define or end this good news. The koinonia in the gospel will carry on because the work never rested on Paul or even on the church, but on God. Praise be to God. The Lord is near.