Those who confess “sola gratia” (grace alone) get nervous when they are told they have to do something as part of their Christian faith. So, preachers should be mindful that their auditors might get fidgety when they hear these verses in Philippians 4 read. Assure them, preachers, there is no need to fret when they listen to Paul saying he expects you to think and act in a biblical way as a consequence of the Gospel. Christian faith comes first and Christian life second. The Apostle still maintains a proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. But on the other side of the Gospel, having been baptized and endowed with faith and living in the midst of this crooked world, he says to the effect: “This is what your life should look like in contradistinction to the culture. I expect you to be thinking and acting in accordance with godliness, not so you may be justified before the Lord, but if you rightly understand the Gospel and feel the implications of its power and profundity, so you may live and enjoy a justified life.” That is life in the Spirit of Christ. It is a life moved and empowered by gospel graces. So, for Paul, once you have grasped the Gospel and Christ makes you His own, he says something like this:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Everything in Philippians chapter 4 from verses 4 through 12 can be summarized under the great heading in verse 4: Celebrate in the Lord! These initial imperatives have to do with piety. Piety is nothing other than appropriate, Holy Spirit motivated Christian devotion to God in thought and deed. Such piety here is expressed in this imperative way because devotion and ethics are, for Paul, inseparable responses to the grace of God. The person who is truly understanding and embraces the Gospel’s reality, that kind of person both longs for God’s presence, where one pours out his or her heart to God in joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, and also lives in God’s presence by “doing” the righteousness of God. Otherwise, piety is merely religion, not devotion, merely works, not the fruit of love for God and God’s love. This kind of piety is a good thing, and it is a world away from hypocritical pietism.
The heart of these exhortations in verses 4-6 reflects the threefold expression of the best of Old Testament Jewish piety: Rejoicing in the Lord, prayer, and thanksgiving. You find these same three expressions throughout the Psalms and all over the lives of the prophets. Rejoicing and thanking the Lord are as basic to being a Jew as one can get, as far as the expectations of the Old Testament are concerned. That was the old-time religion the Lord endorsed.
The order of these behaviors and attitudes are the same, Paul is saying, in the Old Covenant as in the New Covenant. Rejoicing comes first because of who the Lord is and what He has done for us. He won a great redemption for us as our gracious King. You have got to rejoice about that! And because that is the first fact, we offer prayers (no matter what the situation) since He cares so deeply for us. Our rejoicing and praying flow from a posture of thankfulness because we know it has been by grace that He redeemed us from judgment, from bondage to selfish-sinfulness, and from death itself.
Our rejoicing and praying flow from a posture of thankfulness because we know it has been by grace that He redeemed us from judgment, from bondage to selfish-sinfulness, and from death itself.
For Paul, rejoicing and thanking the Lord are the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer and especially within the believing congregation. In other words, this is not just about you and your personal piety. Individual Christians are bound up with the Body of Christ, the Church. Remember, Paul writes to the Church. This is not private correspondence. Yes, he can tell the baptized to be joyful. Joy is commanded, while peace is promised. God gives the peace, but you have got to rejoice! Get a grip on the reality of your redeemed life, Paul says, your miserable attitude and anxiety bespeaks of unfaithful unbelief. Knock it off! Time for an attitude adjustment. Rejoice, again I say rejoice!
It is worth noting once more how Paul is not saying this to an individual. All these imperatives are expressed in the second person plural and exemplify the conjunction between individual and corporate piety, between your devotion and our devotion. As always in Paul, the “joy, prayer, and thanksgiving,” evidenced outwardly by “gentleness” and inwardly by God’s “peace,” first have to do with the gathered people of God. Our rejoicing and thankfulness out here beget peace in here (the heart and mind). But the fact that, “The peace of God shall guard your hearts and minds...,” reminds us that what is to be reflected in the gathered community must first be the experience of each believer. Do you have peace? Then we have gentleness. Do you have the joy of the Lord? Then we have God’s peace toward us in Christ securing our hearts and minds together as a close-knit family. In this way, the Church is like a beehive: One working for all and affecting all and all working for and affecting one. Every church, including (insert your churches name here), is to be a beehive of honey, sweetness, joy, gentleness, thanksgiving, peace, and security. If you are a hand-wringing worry-wort or miserly killjoy, then know you bring nothing to the honeycomb. What you need is a fresh dose of Gospel nectar, not only for your sake, but for the Church’s sake, too.
There really is an outward focus in this command to rejoice. The word for rejoice is the old Greek term for celebrate! We normally understand the word “rejoice” as meaning something that happens inside people, a sense of joy welling up and making them happy from within. All of this is important and contained within Paul’s command, but in his world and culture, rejoicing would have meant (what we would call) public celebration. The world all around, in Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, and elsewhere, used to organize great festivals, games, and shows to celebrate their gods and cities, not least the new “god” of the Empire, Caesar himself. If they celebrated nonsense like that, Paul was saying, then why should the followers of the world’s factual and rightful King, Jesus the Christ, not celebrate even more exuberantly! Paul says, “Now get out there and celebrate, because celebrating Jesus as the world’s reigning Lord encourages and strengthens loyalty and obedience and leaves you with abounding joy and peace.”
The first imperative says “celebrate in the Lord” always, even amid our presently unpleasant circumstances. The second imperative flows from the first: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” Even in the face of opposition and suffering, what others are to see is our collective gentleness.
This passage intends to remind the Philippians of their security in the present and the future, despite what was happening to them. Thus, it is a word of encouragement and affirmation. Since their present suffering is at the hands of those who proclaim Caesar as Lord, they are reminded that the true Lord is near, no further away than the Sacraments. Christ has not abandoned us. Rather, He has reappeared under the auspices of the consecrated bread and eucharistic wine for our strengthening and endurance through the evolutions and devolutions of life.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Philippians 4:4-13.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching Philippians 4:4-13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 4:4-13.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!