We enter into the brief respite of the penitential season of Advent with the call “Gaudate!” The theme of rejoicing appears beautifully in our Epistle and in the Old Testament from Zephaniah. We also hear the reason for that rejoicing in John’s voice. Even if one preaches on the Gospel from Luke 3, the other pericopes on the theme of rejoicing should shape the proclamation for this Sunday. We rejoice, because God dwells with us, will rescue us, and make us His own forever by the forgiveness of our sins.
Philippians 4:4-7 is not an occasion to preach a revivalist sermon that stirs up the emotions of the downcast or those dealing with the holiday blues, though the text may seem at first glance to align with generic holiday cheer. “Cheer up,” however, does not do justice to this very rich text, nor will turning gospel joy into a demand of the law help anyone. Paul is exhorting a church with division, who struggles to remain steadfast in Christ until He comes again in glory at the Resurrection (3:20-21).
As mentioned last week, Paul is not writing to Christians in general, without distinction. In this chapter and in chapter 3, Paul seems to target a collection of pastors who are to teach the faithful. His exhortation to avoid those dogs demanding circumcision (3:2) is directed to pastors who are called to preach the word and defend the flock from false teachers and false doctrine. Of course, the flock should also recognize a wolf in sheep’s clothes, as Christ himself says. But Paul is primarily exhorting those who should imitate him in their office as teachers and preachers: “Imitate me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us [the apostolic “we”]” (3:17). Thus, the letter moves back and forth between a wide and a narrow audience. The wider audience is addressed most clearly at the start and close of the letter at 1:1 and 4:15. There Paul addresses the whole church. But in the verse just preceding our pericope, Paul calls on his σύζυγος to settle the dispute between the two leading ladies in the Philippian church: Euodia and Syntyche. There is a great deal of debate about who this σύζυγος is. Check your BDAG for the details. Some have thought that this is Paul’s wife, since the word can mean wife. Others have thought that this is a particular pastor or bishop whose name is “Syzygos.” Others believe this is a pastor or bishop who Paul refers to as a “true comrade,” no doubt because he suffered with Paul in the ministry—perhaps he means Epaphoditus (2:25-30). Whoever it is, he or she is to reconcile the factions among the leading women in the church.
Paul connects the church’s rejoicing to the nearness of the Lord at 2:5: ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς. Again the liturgical context should not be overlooked. Christians must continually be reminded that Christ is not abstractly near, way up in heaven to be contemplated from a distance. Rather, He is “in your midst” (Zeph. 3:15-17). He is as close to the hearers as bread and wine on the altar, water in the font, and the preaching to them this day. Many of our congregations that still do not receive the blessings of the Sacrament every week need preaching on the Sacrament to make them hungry for it. This is not Law, but grace, and the very means of grace to strengthen and sustain the church’s faith. We cannot expect our people to desire the Sacrament “often” if they do not hear again and again the consolation offered to us in our Lord’s body and blood. Seeing this text as an address to those who gather on the Lord’s Day to receive the Sacrament of the Altar will also put the language of rejoicing in context.
Paul’s exhortation to reconcile with one another (4:2) is central to the church’s life as she is joined as one with her Lord in the Holy Communion of His Altar. The ESV’s translation makes this text seem as if being “reasonable” were an intellectual exercise. The Greeks sometimes used the term to mean that which is fitting and therefore reasonable in our behavior. But Paul is saying much more than that. If Paul only meant to act according to reason, the message of verse 5 would be something like this: “Let people know how easy it is to talk to you and how understanding you are; and, by the way, the Lord is near.” Instead, τὸ ἐπιεικὲς ὑμῶν γνωσθήτω πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις has to do with how the world perceives the church as the body of Christ. The term ἐπιεικὲς (ἐπιεικής) in the LXX is usually used to describe God’s disposition as King toward His people. He is meek and gentle. Since not all pastors have Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament on the shelf, I give you the TDNT entry on the term ἐπιεικής. I find this resource to be very edifying for sermon preparation on this text. I believe it puts the text in its liturgical setting:
In 2 Cor. 10:1 ἐπιεικείας τοῦ Χριστοῦ refers to the meekness of Christ as a model for Paul and the community. Christ is an example as the Revealer of divine and royal majesty. As the heavenly King (Phil. 2:5 ff.) He is gentle as only one who has full power can be. ἐπιείκεια is thus a complement of heavenly majesty. The weak are always anxiously trying to defend their power and dignity. He who has heavenly authority can display saving, forgiving and redeeming clemency even to His personal enemies. But Paul and the community have also a heavenly calling (Phil. 3:20). They are thus associated with the divine δόξα. For this reason they, too, must display ἐπιείκεια. Even in the most difficult situations the ἐπιείκεια τοῦ Χριστοῦ must determine the relations of Paul and the community. Members of the community must be loyal to the apostle in face of all hostile calumniators (2 Cor. 10:6). Trusting in the atonement, they must humbly seek ἐπιείκεια, so that he, too, may exercise his apostolic authority (2 Cor. 10:8) simply in the sense of the κύριος as ἐπιείκεια. Thus in ἐπιείκεια there is given to Paul and the community a sign of their supraterrestrial possession.
This is even clearer in the use of ἐπιεικής in Phil. 4:5. Because the κύριος is at hand, and the final δόξα promised to Christians will soon be a manifest reality, they can be ἐπιεικεῖς towards all men in spite of every persecution. Faith in their hidden, heavenly plenitude of light and power and life produces a saving gentleness. It is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly glory. Hence it is not weakness or sentimentality. It is the earthly outworking of an eschatological possession (cf. Phil. 2:15–16). As the governor, Felix, ought to manifest a clemency corresponding to his high office (Acts 24:4), so Christians can be ἐπιεικεῖς in virtue of their heavenly calling given to them by God (G. Kittel, TDNT, II:589-590).
And I would add that the meekness of Christ is given most wonderfully to us in the Sacrament. He gives Himself to us, therefore, we do not need to be worried about anything. The Lord who knows us and invites us to call on Him in every need of body and soul is near. He who comes in the Name of the Lord is our peace, who will guard us and keep us in Him until He comes again. After preaching this text, the Pax Domini of the Sacrament should appear in a new light for our people.
Concordia Theology: Various resources to assist you in preaching Philippians 4:4-7.