Today’s guest post is by Chaplain Mike Mercer.
For Michael & Denise.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.4-7, NRSV)
How do exhortation passages in the Bible function as a living Word that truly speaks to us and works in us in a Gospel-oriented way?
Too many times in the past I have taken a text like the one above from Philippians and have preached or taught it as if it represented God’s laws for living a good and godly life. You know the drill. We might title this passage, “Living the rejoicing life,” or “How to overcome anxiety,” or “How to experience God’s peace.” We then give a series of “steps” or “principles” that, if followed, will yield the kind of life that “pleases God.”
I even remember taking a clever suggestion from a professor and writing this text on a small piece of paper, then giving it to a parishioner I was visiting as a “prescription” for her to “take” daily so that she might find help for the worry that was crippling her. She may have been helped, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I missed a chance to give her the Gospel by treating this text like good advice.
How can we hear this “practical” text as Gospel and not just as wise counsel?
– We hear it as God’s family in Christ, not just as individuals with needs.
Most of the exhortations in the epistles are addressed to the church, not to individual Christians. We often miss this in our English translations, because our language doesn’t have a pronoun that distinguishes between “you” (singular) and “you” (plural). Perhaps we need to adopt the southern-style approach and translate the Greek as “you,” “y’all,â€ and “all y’all” to make clear who is being addressed!
In Philippians, Paul is addressing a church family, talking about the concerns and problems they face together, and encouraging them to deal with those issues as a family. When he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord…don’t worry about anything…” etc., he is saying, in essence, “God has made you a family in Jesus, and here is how God leads his family as they face life together. Trust him and get in the flow of what God is doing and wants to do among you.”
One aspect of the Good News in this passage is that God addresses us as his family. As an individual, I am part of something bigger than myself, something that God created in Christ, something he is overseeing. Of course there are individual implications to this, but I am never on my own and addressed as though it’s all up to me. The resources that the Father puts at our disposal, the comfort of having brothers and sisters beside me, the examples and traditions that have been passed down which define our heritage and the family’s character, the Spirit we have received through having been born of God, all these Gospel blessings support and inspire us to practice his ways.
– We hear God’s imperatives in the light of the Gospel indicatives.
This text contains several imperatives or commands: rejoice in the Lord, don’t worry about anything, let your requests be made known to God. When we read a list of instructions like this, we are tempted to take it and turn it into a series of “steps” or “principles” or “rules” to be followed in order to achieve a desired result. The onus thus falls on us to do what it takes in order to experience God’s “peace.”
It is easy to miss the one small indicative statement in this passage: “The Lord is near.” Tucked in among the exhortations, this word of established Gospel fact changes the entire nature of the text and makes all the difference in how we understand it.
What does it mean? There are two primary possibilities: (1) the Lord’s return is imminent, or (2) the Lord is near at hand (present to help). Both are Gospel.
If the first meaning is intended, then Paul is encouraging his Philippian friends to remember that Christ’s return is sure, the consummation of history is at hand, and their vindication and deliverance from the troubles of life in a fallen world will certainly happen soon. Therefore — they can rejoice, not worry, pray with thanksgiving, and thus experience the peace of God surrounding and protecting them.
If we take the second meaning, Paul may be alluding to Psalm 145:18 — “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” This leads naturally into the call to prayer that follows. Because of the Gospel truth that God is graciously present and available to his people, therefore — they can rejoice, not worry, pray, know God’s peace.
Either way (or maybe both elements are included in an intentionally ambiguous statement), this indicative sentence grounds all the imperatives of this passage in Gospel proclamation. The way to encourage God’s family to live as God’s family is to remind them of what they have as members of God’s family. Any exhortation or instruction we give as Christians must be preceded by a “therefore” which points back to Jesus and grounds the works we are being commanded to do in his finished work.
– How then, to preach or teach this passage?
With these things in mind, here’s how I would approach sharing this passage (in short-form):
The Lord be with you. (And also with you.)
As Paul prepares to conclude this letter we call Philippians, a warm personal epistle to his friends in Philippi, the apostle gives them several instructions about how to live as God’s family. He talks to them about finding their joy in the Lord, about being gentle, forbearing, and generous people, about not worrying but turning to God in prayer. It is this lifestyle that will enable them to experience God’s peace in their church family, a peace that will keep them with a deep sense of security in Christ.
But it would not be wrong for us to ask him, “Paul, how can we cultivate this kind of lifestyle?” For if we are honest, we will acknowledge that none of these virtues and practices come naturally to us. We don’t find it easy to rejoice when things get tough. When people treat us unkindly, responding with gentleness and a generous spirit is not our reflex. We worry. Our minds get too distracted to pray, much less pray with thanksgiving. So, how can we possibly discover the peace that Paul says will guard our minds and hearts in Christ?
Let’s look away from these exhortations for a moment, because, tucked in this list of instructions is a wonderful statement of God’s Good News that we need to hear first and most clearly.
It’s right there at the end of verse 5: “The Lord is near.”
Here is this Philippian church, in danger of being torn by dissension, threatened by false teachers and others who oppose them and the Gospel, strained by selfish attitudes and various struggles. Paul knows that what they need to hear most is this: “The Lord is near.” It’s not enough for him to give them a list of things to do. He knows that, on our own, there is no series of steps or principles that we can follow to find God’s peace. So, right in the middle of the instructions, Paul steps back and reminds them of this fundamental fact.
He assures his friends by saying, “The Lord is near” — ”Friends, God is with us. The Lord is near. He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. He is near to all who call upon him. He has not abandoned us, even though we are going through this rough patch in our walk with him. There is nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from his love. He is present, available; his arms will surround us, his Spirit will strengthen and uphold us, his words will speak comfort to our hearts, his angels hold us up, he sends his messengers of love to minister to us.
There may be a second aspect to this affirmation as well. Not only is he near to us now, but his coming again is near as well.
“The Lord is near” means that Christ will return and vindicate his people. He will deliver us from all our fears, and from all the trials that trip us up and trouble us in this world. He will complete his work of transforming us from sinners to saints and finally save us from the very presence of sin, evil, and death. He will make all things new. The Lord is near!
Because he is with us, and because his coming is imminent, we have reason to rejoice. We can be gentle and generous toward everyone. We can put aside worry and turn to God in prayer, thanking him for all he gives us in Christ. We can rest in his peace.
All that God requires of us, he himself provides in this word of Good News: “The Lord is near.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As you read this post today, feel welcome to comment either on the concept of Gospel-oriented exhortations, or on the text from Philippians itself and what it teaches. I hope both aspects of what I’ve written will bless and encourage you.