In Belgic Confession Article 27, we confess certain foundational truths about the nature of Christ’s church: things like its universality, its unity and its holiness. Vital to our understanding of the church and its attributes is that they find their ultimate source in the workings of the Triune God. It is not ecclesiastical structures or personal Christian piety that ensure the church, but rather the electing, redeeming and regenerating work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Do you want to know how to recognize the true church today? Wherever the Word is faithfully preached, the sacraments duly administered and church discipline practiced, there is the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ. To learn more, listen here.
You have probably heard the saying: “You are what you eat.” If you eat too much or eat a steady diet of fast food, your body will pay a price. If you eat too little or too much of the same thing, you will feel the effects. What can be said about food for the body can also be said about food for the mind. There is much “food for thought” in this life and it influences the way we live. The writer to the Proverbs once wrote: “As a man thinks, so is he…” (Proverbs. 23:7).
The Apostle Paul was a thinking man and he was also a joyful man. In fact, he had his mind so fixed on Jesus that he could say things like: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8). In other words, the renewal of Paul’s mind by the Holy Spirit affected his entire life: his feelings and his actions. This fact is particularly evident in his response to suffering hardship for the sake of the gospel. In Phil. 1:7, we learn that Paul was writing to the Philippian believers from prison where he sat in a dark and musty cell because of his defence of the gospel. While he was in shackles outwardly, he was nevertheless free in his spirit. For, his mind was set on things above, where Christ is. He had ajoy and peace that transcended his circumstances. In Phil 3:17, Paul calls the Philippians to follow his example as he followed Christ. He wants them to live lives worthy of the gospel (Phil 1.27).
In our passage this evening, which comes at the end of the book of Philippians, Paul commands the Philippian believers to engage in certain kinds of behavior. But as we shall see, Paul calls forth fruit from those whom he has already rooted firmly in the gospel. In Philippians 4:2-9, Paul commands unity, joy, prayer, thanksgiving, peace, purity and excellence, based on the assumption that we are already “partakers of grace” (Phil 1.7), we “have the mind of Christ” (Phil 2.5), and we are “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:17). God wants us to live out our new identity in Christ. God the Father wants us to live as new creatures in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So what does this all look like in the midst of the messiness of real life?
Like-minded unity (vv 2-3)
In Phil 4:2-3, Paul’s concern is for unity among believers in the church. The Apostle has already brought up the issue of unity in Chapter 1, where he calls the Philippians to stand firmly united in mind and spirit as they face ongoing threat from enemies of the gospel. In our passage, Paul pleads with two estranged members of the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche, to be re-united in the Lord. The fact that Paul calls them by name reveals that they are well known in the church, which heightens all the more the urgency for reconciliation. He begs them: “to be of the same mind in the Lord” (v 2). The kind of unity that Paul expects here is not vague and loose. Rather, he expects from them nothing less than agreement in mind, heart and life.
It is likely that these two women played an influential role in the early church, possibly opening up their respective homes for Christians to meet. They had labored alongside of Paul for the gospel. Yet, while they had done much to help the early church, their present disagreement was becoming a threat to its ongoing health. Now notice how Paul does not offer some superficial or worldly solution to their conflict. Rather, the Apostle calls attention to the supernatural wellspring of their unity. Euodia and Syntyche can be reconciled because they are both “in the Lord”.
The point is that no matter what divides us as Christians, whether it is race, culture, social cliques, class or differing opinions over the church budget, we can be one because we all share in “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” (Eph 4:5) in Jesus Christ. We are all one in Jesus Christ and we all share in the power of his Holy Spirit. Yet, we still need each other to live out this reality. (Remember that God uses means to accomplish his purposes for his church.) This is why we find in Phil 4:3 that Paul is not expecting these women to be re-united in isolation from the broader church. Rather, the church at large, with its pool of gifts, talents and officers is to be involved in the healing process.
And notice again at the end of v3 that Paul comforts and assures the Philippians in their labours for the gospel by reminding them of their new identity in Christ. He writes that their names “are written in the book of life” (3b). How tempting it is to grow weary of fighting against the enemies of the cross outside of the church and strife within the church. Paul is aware of this and therefore reminds the Philippians and us of the hope of eternal life that we have by faith. We do not labour in vain. Instead, we always labour for God’s glory and the eternal reward he has given to us.
Heavenly dispositions (vv 4-7)
In verses 4-7, Paul continues with his list of commands that call forth the fruit of new life in Christ, who is our living vine. Here, Paul instructs the Philippians to pursue three states of being or dispositions. As we shall see, each one of them makes no sense when judged from the perspective of our experience in this world. In the case of the Philippians, like Paul, they are suffering in various ways for the sake of the gospel. And yet, in the thick of it all Paul calls them to exhibit joy, moderation and peace. How can this be so? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
First, Paul, calls or exhorts the Philippians to the seeming impossible task of “rejoicing always” (v4). However, like church unity, Christian joy is not something that finds its source in man or in this world, but rather “in the Lord”. Consider for a moment the happiness that people seek after in this world. Is it not true that such happiness is dependent on circumstances that are always changing and temporary? The pleasures that this life offers are always dependent on factors that are outside of our control. Joy derived from this world is doomed to escape every mortal being at some point. And yet, how often do we try to find our joy in the fleeting things of this life? How often does our joy simply evaporate when we begin to suffer?
Therefore, like the Philippians, we need to be reminded that our joy comes from sharing in the eternal life and joy of the Triune God. Christian joy comes ultimately from the knowledge that our sins have been forgiven and that we now enjoy an unchangeable and eternal relationship with God. Christian joy also draws on the immensely comforting truth that even our sufferings in this life are sent by God’s loving hand and that they are furthering our salvation. Like the Philippians, we can have happiness in the midst of hostile non-Christians, in prison and even in the face of death. Remember Christ: who for the joy set before him, endured the cross (Heb 12:2). His joyful triumph over sin and death means we can rejoice always.
Secondly, the Apostle calls the Philippians to gentleness or a forbearing spirit towards all men (v5). For the sake of the gospel, the Philippians are not to insist on asserting their every human right as Roman citizens. For example, when it comes to forceful opposition from unbelievers, they are to be ready to suffer the loss of all things. When reviled, they are to stand firm in their confession, but not lash out. When dealing with differences between each other around the gospel, they are to humble themselves and consider others as more important. Again, how can Paul expect such behaviour?
The answer is in verse 5b: because “the Lord is at hand”. Once again, Paul motivates godly behaviour with truths about their new relationship to God. In this instance, Paul motivates the Philippians with the reality that the Lord is near to his people. Like the Philippians, we don’t have to assert our rights and take matters into our own hands, because Christ will one day judge the world when he returns for a second time. On that Final Day, he will make all things right; and those who hate God in this life will be punished. We should be gentle and moderate in this life because God has already come near to us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The wonder of the gospel is that we have everything we could ever want or need in communion with God, despite how people may treat us in this life. Consider Christ: who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Heb 2:7-8). This is the pattern we are to follow. Like Christ, we must endure a life of humiliation before we enter into glory, but with the knowledge that God is always near to us.
The third heavenly disposition that Paul calls the Philippians to is one of godly carelessness in the face of adversity (v6). Now, let us be clear that Paul is not disregarding proper concern for the welfare of others or dismissing the use of appropriate wisdom. Rather, what he is saying is in essence: “stop worrying, stop wanting to see ahead, stop trying to carry the burden of the future upon your own shoulders.” Why? Because of what he has just said: “the Lord is at hand”. Instead of allowing the affairs of this life control them, the Philippians are, “in everything”, to lift up prayers to the sovereign and loving God of the universe. Prayer is the reflex of faith for the Christian. When we stop working and stop fretting, and we pray, we are expressing our absolute dependence upon God.
Prayer, according to Paul, is also to be accompanied by thanksgiving. Thankfulness is our proper response to God’s grace when we have come to understand our guilt before him. In other words, thanksgiving is the evidence in our prayers that we understand who we are as sinners and what God has made us to be through his mercy in Christ.
When we present our requests to God in prayer with thanksgiving, Paul attaches a magnificent promise, v7. He says that the “peace of God” will be with us. Basically what Paul is saying here is that when we pray in faith, God is pleased to allow us to share in his peace. In prayer we share in the tranquility and serenity that God has in his eternal being through the mediation of Christ. This peace, Paul says, “surpasses human understanding”, because it is unlike anything we will find in this world. Like Christian joy, it is not dependent on the ever-changing and uncertain experiences of life in this world, but rather dependent upon God who promises to “guard our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ” (v7b). God’s peace is most certainly ours because of Jesus: who submitted himself perfectly to will of his heavenly Father even in the face of unspeakable torment and suffering, and without a single sigh of sinful anxiety.
Faith-formed morality (vv 8-9)
In the second to last verse of our passage, v8, we find a rather a surprising sentence, at least at first glance. Instead of what we might normally expect from Paul, it reads more like an extract from an essay about morality and virtue from the ancient Greco-Roman world. However, a closer look reveals that Paul is making one final call to the Philippians to set their minds on the things of God. While the first four adjectives that we find here – truth, nobility, righteousness and purity – are virtues common to all of humanity, the last two – that which is “lovely” and “commendable” – lead us to conclude that Paul is expecting more from Christians than virtuous pagan behaviour. What Paul wants is for his readers to select from broader society those things that are in keeping with God’s righteousness. In other words, Paul is not calling us to abandon the world we live in, but to rather to engage it in faith and wisdom. We must remember that this is God’s world. He created it and he sustains it through his Son. God has created all human beings in his image and therefore his moral law is written on the hearts of everyone. Therefore, one will always find evidence (albeit imperfect and relative) of God’s righteousness everywhere – even among non-Christians: in their governments, in their businesses and in their homes.
Paul’s closing words here are in keeping with the rest of the passage and a central theme that runs through the entire book of Philippians. Christian living is first and foremost about having our minds set on the right thing, which is our new identity in Jesus. All attempts at church unity, every pursuit of joy and peace, all our prayers, and all our efforts to be moral and virtuous must be first and foremost motivated by and processed through the gospel (x2). Or to put it in more simple terms: we must live all of live out in faith – especially when we suffer in various ways for the progress of the gospel.
The kind of Christian living that is set forth in our passage this evening is the kind of life that the Apostle Paul has been living. And he wants the Philippians and us to follow his example as he followed after Jesus Christ.
So finally, as we go forth this evening: whatever is excellent and praiseworthy in this life, let us think on such things. But, may our minds always filter such things through the eyes of faith. Know that in gospel of Jesus we have the truth in the midst of a world of half-truth and false gods. Be mindful that in Jesus we have the ultimate noble being who is worthy of our utmost respect and reverence, in a culture that is always caught somewhere between dignity and –self-destruction. Reckon upon the righteousness of Jesus that far exceeds the relative righteousness of man. Meditate upon the unblemished purity of Jesus in the midst of a world in which even its best is still stained by sin.
By all means, enjoy the loveliness of a friendly smile and admire the beauty of God’s creation, but always remember that nothing is more praiseworthy and nothing more excellent than the life of our crucified and risen Saviour. Admire his sublime humility and the perfect symmetry of his emotions. Consider the beauty of his perfect obedient life that led him to be crushed for our iniquities. With this mind about you, go now and live lives worthy of such a glorious gospel. Amen.
Simon Jooste (RCSS evening service, December 16, 2012)