Christianity for Dummies (2): Philippians 4:4-7

by Katie N. and Josh S.

Broadening his scope from the specific means,

Paul proceeds to give general Exhortations to Vertical and Horizontal Harmony (in 4:4-9)

After the intriguing case study of Euodia and Syntyche is presented in 4:2-3, Paul exhorts the entire Philippian community. Specifically and immediately, this is done in order to help “solve” the problem alluded to in 4:2-3. However, the themes addressed here flow directly from Paul’s teaching throughout the entire epistle up to this point, and the following passage in 4:10-20 can be seen as putting flesh on the principles in this passage. Therefore, we interpret these verses as both a proposed “solution” to Euodia and Syntyche’s conflict, and a synthesized summary of Paul’s major teachings in this book. These two elements are the crucial keys to how we interpret this section of our passage. If the immediate context of 4:2-3 and the overarching context of the rest of the book are ignored, then every element of the next six verses can be interpreted in many different ways. This breadth of interpretive choices is made easier by the scarcity of explanatory conjunctions in 4:4-7 and the lack of explicit explanation of what is said in 4:8-9. However, we firmly believe that if 4:2-3 is kept in mind as the case study which Paul had in mind when writing vv. 4-9, and if every interpretive conclusion is evaluated contextually with the rest of the book, then we can arrive on some solid ground of truth on which to stand. Nevertheless, we humbly acknowledge that this is merely our best effort at arriving at a correct interpretation. Although we think that this is interpretively the best fit, our finiteness and brokenness force us to admit that much work could still be done to improve our “conclusions.”

Syntactically, this section is comprised of two implicit conditional sentences. The first is in verses 4:4-7, and the second in vv. 8-9. Every conditional sentence is composed of a conditional subordinate clause called the protasis (the “if”) and a consequential main clause called the apodosis (the “then”). While there are several different types of conditional sentences (primarily dependent on the nature of the protasis), we believe that it is best to take these two sentences as promising the sure results (“the peace of God” in 4:7 and “the God of peace” in 4:9b) that will happen as the exhortations (in 4:4-6 and 4:8-9a) are followed.

Let us begin with the First Conditional Sentence: Rejoice in the Lord (in 4:4-7)

, the Protasis of which is in 4:4-6.

The protasis to the first conditional sentence is composed of four[1] imperatives (4:4, 5a, 6a, and 6b), interrupted by one indicative statement (4:5b). The lack of conjunctions in this section (save for one at the beginning of 4:6b) makes things complicated, because it is unclear how the five elements of this protasis relate to each other. Making sense of this section therefore requires careful conceptual analysis. We will endeavor to show that, while each of these five elements can be interpreted in several different ways conceptually, we believe that our thoroughly relational interpretive framework contextually makes the most sense, especially when the case study of 4:2-3 is considered.

First, Paul urges the Philippians to Rejoice in the Lord (in 4:4)

..Addressing his entire audience as he repeats his exhortation of 3:1 to “rejoice in the Lord.”

Many commentators pass over the asyndeton (lack of conjunctions) in this passage to make the case that 4:5-7 serves to explain the injunction in 4:4 to rejoice in the Lord. However, O’Brien makes a strong and cogent argument that, while there are links elsewhere between the concepts of joy, gentleness, prayer, and peace, that Paul is not here linking these commands. He emphasizes the fact that the exhortations to rejoice and to be gentle are grammatically independent, and claims that the commands of 4:5-6 do not spell out the practical consequences of rejoicing, citing Galatians 5:22 in its mention of joy, peace, and gentleness without a precise relationship between the three being described. O’Brien’s final conclusion, (to which Hawthorne would agree), is that “here at Phil. 4:4-7, through the use of asyndeton, the apostle’s commands take on an individual importance; each is isolated and so made emphatic.” [2]

However, with due respect to O’Brien, we disagree and see conceptual links between the exhortation to rejoice in 4:4 and the exhortations in 4:5-6. However, as mentioned above, the asyndeton of this section complicates things. Ours is only a speculative conclusion, and O’Brien and others may indeed be correct. Nevertheless, we side with N.T. Wright when he claims that everything in 4:4-6 falls under “the great heading in verse 4: celebrate in the Lord!”[3]

Asyndeton makes seeing a hard causal connection, as some do, between rejoicing and the other exhortations an untenable interpretive position. If Paul wanted to make such a connection, then it would seem worth his while to use the needed conjunctions to do so.

However, the fact that he repeats the command to rejoice twice in the same verse, coupled with the fact that “joy” is such a predominant theme throughout the book of Philippians, leads us to believe that this exhortation clearly gets the emphasis in this section. Instead of functioning as a direct cause, however, we see the exhortation to rejoice as the “headline” exhortation to which the others are in some way related. It is the gateway to the gentleness and prayerful avoidance of anxiety urged in the following verses, for 4:5-6 is impossible to follow if 4:4 is neglected. Rejoicing in the Lord makes the following exhortations possible.

The word for “rejoice” here is χαίρετε, a second person plural present active imperative from χαιρω, which has a lexical range including “rejoice, be glad; and hail, a form of greeting or farewell.” Although some commentators have suggested translating this as “farewell in the Lord,” “rejoice, be glad” is the better choice because it contextually makes more sense regarding the modifier πάντοτε “always.” This also makes it clear that the rejoicing is to be independent of circumstances, whether favorable or unfavorable. But what kind of rejoicing is being commanded?

The answer to this question lies in the phrase “in the Lord,” meaning, according to O’Brien, that “the Lord is either the object of their rejoicing or the ground and the one in whom their joy thrives.” We see no reason to create a dichotomy between the two. John Piper’s familiar thesis rings true: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Taking delight in the Lord does not mean having a superficial sense of happiness even when the skies of your life darken with unfavorable circumstances. It means grounding your life’s deepest joy, delight, and satisfaction in the unshakable nature and presence of almighty God.

For the clearest picture of what this looks like, we turn back to chapter 3, which begins with “finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord…” What follows is what we believe to be an extended description of what it means to rejoice in the Lord, and at the center of it is a look into the Christ-centered value system of the apostle Paul (in 3:4-14), surrounded by examples of what it looks like to NOT rejoice in the Lord (3:2-3; 18-21)

Paul rejoices in the Lord as he values Christ above all other things, even those things which he used to regard as his most cherished assets (see Paul’s “impressive” list in 3:4-6). For Paul, finding joy in Jesus meant having his former way of accounting assets and liabilities completely turned on its head. Knowing Christ, being found in him, knowing the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, shaping his life around the pattern of the cross, and attaining to the resurrection from the dead…these things became Paul’s ultimate concerns and primary assets.

When we rejoice in the Lord, we are truly able to say with Paul that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:21), because we find our greatest joy in the Lord Jesus himself, and all other things pale in comparison. When we grasp this reversal of values, many of the confusing things in the book of Philippians begin to make more sense. Rejoicing in the Lord obviously deepens our relationship with God and Christ, but we must not forget the horizontal implications of this principle on our relationships with other human beings.

Secondly, Paul urges them to Be Reasonable (in 4:5a)

Having just finished the headline exhortation to rejoice in the Lord, Paul urges the Philippians to let their gentleness be evident to everyone, believer and outsider alike

τὸ ἐπιεικὲς ὑμῶν: “Gentleness.” The first thing that pops into our mind is perhaps that Paul is commanding Euodia, Syntyche, and the Philippians to “just play nice” as a means of overcoming conflict and achieving unity. However, our current conceptions of what it means to be “gentle” do not match what Paul is getting after through this Greek term. ἐπιεικὲς here stands for the abstract noun ἐπιείκεια, which denoted equity and leniency when applied to authorities and meant “a balanced, intelligent, decent outlook in contrast to licentiousness.”[4] Here, ἐπιείκεια most likely means “a humble, patient steadfastness, which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace and maltreatment without hatred or malice, trusting God in spite of it all.”[5] Therefore, we have chosen the term “reasonableness” to better reflect the meaning of ἐπιεικὲς.

This quality shows up throughout the letter in several places. In 1:15-18, we see Paul being reasonable towards those who are preaching the gospel from envy and rivalry. This passage is significant because we see reasonableness and joy linked. Instead of responding in anger towards these envious preachers, Paul responds with joy (see 1:18). Why? Because Paul’s joy is in the Lord, as we see in 1:20-21. Again, in 2:17-18, where Paul “reasonably/gently” expresses his willingness to be poured out like a drink offering on the sacrificial offering of the Philippians’ faith, we see ἐπιείκεια and joy linked together: “…I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” Why on earth would Paul rejoice at the prospect of being poured out like a drink offering? Because his joy is not in his circumstances, it is in the Lord, as seen by his eschatological view towards Christ in 2:16.

Yet again in 4:10-13 we find joy and reasonableness linked together. Paul rejoiced in the Lord greatly that the Philippians had revived their concern for his welfare. Yet instead of griping about how difficult his circumstances were before their concern for him was rekindled, we find Paul being quite reasonable despite the difficult circumstances he endured. Why? You guessed it: because Paul’s joy is in the Lord, and not in his circumstances. In both abundance and poverty, Paul joyfully endures because his focus is on Christ, who strengthens him (see 4:12-13).

This link between joy and reasonableness is crucial when we consider the case study of 4:2-3. Euodia and Syntyche will never be able to live in harmony as those who have submitted to Christ’s lordship unless they show reasonableness to one another as they move beyond their differences. However, shooting for this reasonableness is a fruitless affair unless their joy is first firmly grounded in the Lord Jesus himself. Otherwise, they will only be able to be as reasonable as their circumstances dictate. This is where rejoicing in the Lord profoundly affects our interpersonal relationships.

Paul then encourages the Philippians that The Lord is Near (in 4:5b)

After two imperatives, Paul breaks form with a very short indicative statement of the Lord’s nearness.

κύριος ἐγγύς: Three short words should be simple enough to understand, right? The interpretive difficulties surrounding this statement are due to the lack of any conjunctions to link this statement with what precedes and what follows after it. In addition, ἐγγύς, an adverb meaning “near,” can either be taken spatially (as in “the Lord is present with us”) or temporally (as in “the Lord will soon return”). Most recent commentators have taken this statement eschatologically, referring to the Lord’s soon return, and this has a quite firm textual basis (consider the eschatological focus of 1:6, 10; 2:16; 3:20-21). However, the brevity and ambiguity of this phrase suggests that Paul is purposefully using it in a multifaceted way to encourage his readers here in their obedience to his exhortations in 4:4-7. For the Philippians to know that their Lord was both at hand and coming quickly would be a powerful incentive for them to rejoice, be reasonable, avoid anxiety, and present their requests to God.

In light of this, the Philippians are to Avoid Anxiety (in 4:6a)

The readers, having just been encouraged of the Lord’s nearness, are now commanded to stop having undue anxiety.

μηδὲν μεριμνᾶτε: O’Brien, citing A.T. Robertson and M. Zerwick, claims that “the negative μηδὲν with the present imperative, μεριμνᾶτε, assumes that the Philippians had been anxious, and they are now urged to stop being so.”[6] Μεριμνάω is only used twice in this epistle: positively to convey Timothy’s genuine concern for the Philippians in 2:20, and negatively here to convey “anxious harassing care” or “unreasonable anxiety.”[7]

Many commentators focus on this anxiety as due to the unpredictability of first century life in. For example, Paul had ample occasions to be anxious as he was in prison at the time. However, consider his gospel-centered and quite calm explanation of his circumstances in 1:12-18, and his previously-mentioned contentment which transcended his circumstances in 4:10-13. In addition, the Philippians may have been facing the prospect of persecution (see 1:28). However, as previously mentioned, we believe that the case study of 4:2-3 must be kept in mind as we interpret this command.

Anxiety would have fueled the fire of the interpersonal conflict between Euodia and Syntyche. We can see this in 2:3-4 “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This runs against the grain of anxiety, which selfishly becomes quite fearful and angry when one’s own “needs” go unmet. This also runs against the previous command toward reasonableness, which anxiety makes impossible to obey. And all of this looks back toward the injunction of 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord,” which makes being reasonable and avoiding anxiety possible. Otherwise, our focus turns away from God and toward our circumstances and anxious personal desires. However, in addition to rejoicing in the Lord to avoid anxiety, Paul offers another solution.

Instead, the Philippians are to Present Their Requests to God (4:6b)

Instead of having undue anxiety, the Philippians are to thankfully make their requests known to God through prayer in every situation.

R. Rainy said rightly that “the way to be anxious about nothing is to be prayerful about everything.”[8]

Paul tells the Philippians to let their requests be made known to God “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” The first two terms, τῇ προσευχῇ καὶ τῇ δεήσει, are best taken synonymously to refer to prayer/petition, instead of trying to ascertain the minute differences in nuance between the two terms. μετ’ εὐχαριστίας (with thanksgiving) describes the spirit in which this is to be done. As the Philippians present their requests to god in petitionary prayer, they are to be cognizant of and thankful for that which God has already given to them, most notably their salvation in Jesus the Messiah.

For an example of what this looks like, we should turn back to Paul’s introductory prayer in 1:3-11, where he presents his requests to God regarding the Philippians with an unmistakable attitude of joyful thanksgiving.

In order to avoid undue anxiety, the Philippians need to lay all their present cares and requests before God with a joyful and thankful spirit, acknowledging their utter dependence upon him in the confidence that he knows their deepest needs, that he is present with them, and that he is soon to return (see 4:5b).

This brings us to the first Apodosis: The Peace of God (in 4:7)

The sure result of following the previous exhortations toward joy, reasonableness, and a prayerful avoidance of anxiety, is God’s own peace, more wonderful than anything the Philippians can comprehend.

The καὶ that introduces this verse is consecutive.[9] This means that it introduces the results of what precedes. O’Brien refutes the notion of some that this is nothing more than a concluding wish of Paul, based on the future tense of the verb φρουρήσει (will guard). He also denies that this is designed to conclude the previous exhortations as a whole at the end of the paragraph, instead seeing this verse as “a specific and certain promise about God’s peace that is attached to the encouraging admonition of v. 6.[10] While not wanting to deny the obvious tie between the exhortation to avoid anxiety and the promise of God’s amazing peace, we disagree with O’Brien and see the promise of 4:7 as being tied into this paragraph as a whole. This is due to the fact that everything in this section is so closely linked conceptually when viewed through a relational interpretive lens (keeping in mind the case study of 4:2-3). The kind of peace being described here is more than a simple antonym to the undue anxiety mentioned in 4:6. As we will see, “peace” is an incredibly rich term that can be seen in what it means to rejoice in the Lord (4:4), in the redemption of interpersonal relationships manifested in a reasonable spirit toward all (4:5a), and in the Lord’s nearness (4:5b). Therefore, we see this apodosis in 4:7 as linked with all of 4:4-6. This sure result applies to the exhortations in the previous three verses.

εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ: Much as our modern notions of “gentleness” fall short of the richness of the Greek term επιεικεια, our modern conceptions of “peace” fall short of the richness of the Greek term εἰρήνη and its foundation in the incredibly rich Hebrew term shalom. As if this were not enough, the modifying genitive phrase τοῦ θεοῦ (of God) makes this phrase even richer and more unique. Indeed, this is the only time in the New Testament that the specific phrase “peace of God” occurs.[11] For a discussion on how to interpret this genitive, we turn to Hawthorne, who says:

Paul is not now referring to the peace with God (τοῦ θεοῦ viewed as an objective genitive) that the Philippians had as a result of their being justified by faith in Jesus Christ: such peace is presupposed. Nor is he exclusively referring to that “inward peace of soul that come from God” (τοῦ θεοῦ viewed as subjective genitive), a peace that “is grounded in God’s presence and promise,” the result of believing prayer (Vincent; cf. Rom. 14:17; 15:13; Col. 3:15). Paul seems here to be referring to the tranquility of God’s own eternal being (Caird), the peace which God himself has (Barth), the calm serenity that characterizes his very nature (τοῦ θεοῦ viewed as a descriptive genitive; cf. 4:9; Sipre 42 on Num. 6:26: Gnilka) and which grateful, trusting Christians are welcome to share (cf. Foerster, TDNT 2,411-17). If they do, then not only will inner strife resulting from worrying cease, but external strife, resulting from disagreements among Christians has the potential of coming to an end as well.[12]

However, even though it is perhaps best to take τοῦ θεοῦ as a descriptive genitive, this does not exclude the phrase “peace of God” from referring to the peace that God himself can give.[13] This is semantically possible, because εἰρήνη (cf. BAGD) has a lexical range which includes “a state of concord: peace, harmony,” but also “a state of well-being: peace.” It is here that BAGD adds that this semantic facet of εἰρήνη corresponds to the Hebrew term shalom, meaning “welfare, health,” and that “since, according to the prophets, peace will be an essential characteristic of the messianic kingdom. Christian though also frequently regards εἰρήνη as nearly synonymous with messianic salvation.” O’Brien is quick to make this connection, and says that ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ “is thus equivalent to the eschatological salvation that has been effected in Christ Jesus” and “is parallel to [the peace of Christ], which designates the peace that Christ both embodies and brings (cf. Jn. 14:27).”[14]

A full discussion of εἰρήνη and shalom far exceeds the scope of this presentation. However, some analysis of what the peace of God is said to accomplish in this verse will help to clarify what Paul is saying here about this sure result to the exhortations of 4:4-6.

The peace of God will guard the Philippians’ hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (φρουρήσει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν καὶ τὰ νοήματα ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ). But what does this mean? Φρουρήσει is the third person singular future active indicative form of φρουρέω, meaning “guard, keep in custody, preserve…a vivid military term used of a detachment of soldiers who stand guard over a city and protect it from attack.”[15] According to Hawthorne, Philippi would have been guarded by a Roman garrison at this time, ensuring that this metaphor would have been readily understood by Paul’s audience.[16]

The object of the verb is “your hearts and your minds.” O’Brien regards “heart” as “describing the whole person from an emotional and volitional angle” and “mind” as focusing on the mental aspects.[17] The sphere in which this takes place is “in Christ Jesus,” and most commentators readily agree on this: the peace of God will guard and protect the hearts and minds of those who have been united with Christ Jesus by submitting to his lordship.

What will they be guarded against? Surely the sense includes that they will be guarded against the undue anxiety of 4:6, a lack of reasonableness toward others (4:5), and a failure to rejoice in the Lord (4:4). Taking a relational view of this passage seems to indicate that the peace of God, as the previous exhortations are followed, will guard the Philippians against that which would wreck their unity with each other and with God himself. It will act as a familiar garrison of soldiers, protecting them on all sides as they stand “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (see 1:27).

[1] Since 4:6a and 6b conceptually combine as one command unit, it is possible to list either three or four commands in this section.

[2] O’Brien, 485.

[3] Wright, 130.

[4] O’Brien, 487.

[5] Ibid., 487.

[6] O’Brien, 491.

[7] Hawthorne, 183.

[8] Cited by J.H. Michael, who is cited by O’Brien, 492.

[9] Cf. BAGD, in O’Brien, 495.

[10] Ibid., 495.

[11] Hawthorne, 184. O’Brien, 496.

[12] Hawthorne, 184.

[13] O’Brien, 496.

[14] Ibid., 496.

[15] Ibid., 498.

[16] Hawthorne, 184-5.

[17] O’Brien, 498.



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