Last Lord’s Day morning we considered Paul’s exhortation to joy in this string of loosely related instructions for Christian living. Now we move on to the next: his command that Christians live at peace, at peace with one another – let your gentleness be evident to all – and at peace within, in a state of inner peace.
We said last week that the word the NIV translates “gentleness” might be rendered “forbearance.” It carries with it the ideas of patience and graciousness. Given the fact that the church was then facing some opposition, Paul reminded them to be gentle-spirited, as Jesus himself was. In 2 Cor. 10:1 Paul refers to “the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” using the same word as here.
A reason why Christians ought to be so is then provided: the Lord is near. The word “near” is ambiguous in Greek as it is in English. It can mean near either in terms of space or time. Either would make sense here. Either is obviously true. And either would serve as an excellent reason for Christians to face the difficulties posed by other people with patience and grace: either the Lord is near us to help and protect us or he is near to returning and we have only to serve faithfully until he comes. In the latter case, favored by most commentators, it would be a reminder to heed the Lord’s admonition to be like faithful servants who are waiting for their master’s return (Luke 12:46). The Lord’s servants should adopt an unabrasive spirit, even under provocation, because their Lord is coming to vindicate their cause; they don’t have to. Their gentleness is not weakness; it is strength and the doing of their master’s will, in anticipation of his approval when he returns. [cf. O’Brien, 489]
It is worth pointing out that the sentence “The Lord is near” is not grammatically connected to anything else. It stands by itself. So it is just as possible that it provides motivation for the exhortation that follows it as for the exhortation that precedes it, or, as is very likely, for both. Why be anxious when the King of Kings will soon be here to put all things right and reward his people for anything they may have endured in his name?
The anxiety that Paul is commanding us to lay aside is unreasonable worry, worry that distracts, worry that results from a forgetfulness of God. There is a proper kind of worry, the worry that comes from love and from a proper concern for others. The proof of that is that the same word “anxiety” here in 4:6 is used in 2:20 to describe Timothy’s concern for the Philippians’ welfare.
As so often in the Bible righteousness is the forsaking of one thing – worry – and the practice of another – prayer with thanksgiving. Godliness is never simply not doing something. It is always doing something else! The one lays the axe to the root of the other. Take your troubles to God and let the Almighty handle them. The practice of your faith is the counterpoise to worry. And remember to thank God for what he has done for you, which will sweeten your spirit and keep your troubles in perspective. This is not the only place where Paul combines peace with thanksgiving. In Col. 3:15 he says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And be thankful.” The Puritans used to talk about thanksgiving as if it were an all prevailing prayer in itself. If you have no heart or think you have no time for petitions, then fill up your mouth with thanksgivings to God: they will stand for your requests. As John Bunyan put it, “A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received, is a mighty prayer in the sight of God; it prevails with him unspeakably.” [Works, i, 624]
The result of their heeding Paul’s exhortation is that God’s peace will keep them, whether or not their specific petition is granted. Clearly this is finishing the thought and provides the corrective to “Do not be anxious…” God’s peace will fill their hearts as they live their lives thanking him and looking to him for what they need. “God himself is not beset with anxieties” [F.W. Beare in O’Brien, 496] and those who have his peace won’t be either. This peace is something no one will understand who imagines that it is the result of some human calculation. There is something ineffable, God-like about it, more wonderful than you can know until you have experienced it. A vast multitude of saints through the ages will say “Amen!” to that. They have found the peace of God to be like a garrison of soldiers protecting them and warding off their enemies, allowing them to rest in serenity while the world churns up turmoil of every kind.
“Peace” is both a very important word and idea in human life and a very elastic concept. Everyone nowadays speaks of wanting “peace” in the Middle East. There is active conflict, lives are being taken day after day in acts of violence, a powder keg of deep-seated animosities – Muslim against Jew, Sunni against Shia, Arab against American – threatens at any time to ignite catastrophic outbreaks of conflict that could very well engulf the world, and long-simmering resentments fuel terrorist acts from time to time in many other parts of the world. The lack of peace in the Middle East, in other words, threatens peace everywhere. No wonder people talk of peace. It is an elusive ideal in the politics of our world.
But peace is also an intensively personal and private condition. Soldiers at war who are facing death every day can have peace while people living in political and social conditions of quiet and prosperity can be utterly bereft of it.
People mean different things when they use the word. P.G. Wodehouse once quipped that the peace that passeth all understanding can only be experienced by the man who has given up golf. That actually happens to be the view of peace, however, held by many people. Peace is simply the absence of vexation or frustration or worry. That obviously is part of anyone’s definition of peace, but Paul certainly meant very much more by peace than that because he held that one could have the peace he is speaking about in the midst of many vexations, troubles of different kinds, and even profound disappointments in life.
In Paul’s understanding of peace one can be calm and untroubled for all the wrong reasons. This is not peace; this is a dull conscience and a complete lack of imagination. Rabbi Duncan, the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian missionary to the Jews and professor of Hebrew, said,
“I have more than once seen the calmness of the brutish ignorance of an unawakened conscience on the very verge of eternity. It was an awful calmness.” [Moody Stuart, John Duncan, 107]
I’ve seen that sort of peace myself: people on the brink of death, people whose lives were lived with little regard to God or man, who nevertheless have no interest in thinking about, still less worrying about what might greet them on the other side. This is peace only in the sense that a man in a coma is at peace! This is peace without meaning, without virtue. This is peace as a fleeting and utterly selfish and unthinking indifference. The most evil men in the world have this sort of peace!
Paul is talking about a different thing. He calls it God’s peace.
Taking Paul as a whole and the Bible as a whole, it is God’s peace for several reasons.
- First, it is God’s peace because it is God’s gift and God’s doing and it comes from him. Jesus, remember, told his disciples, “My peace I leave with you.” And here in Philippians 4:7 we have a similar idea: the peace of God actively guarding our hearts.
- Second, it is God’s peace because first and foremost it is peace with God. This peace is the fellowship with God and the love of God and love for God and the belonging to God that he has poured into the hearts of sinners that were formerly at odds with him and alienated from him. We who were God’s enemies have, as Paul says elsewhere, “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Third, it is God’s peace because it is a supernatural condition. It is not something that we can create ourselves, work up by some technique – yoga or transcendental meditation – and there is that about it that is beyond our comprehension. It has a mystical element this peace. I’m using the word mystical in its approved sense as referring to a spiritual reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor subject to the intellect, especially in relationship to one’s direct communion with God. “Mystical” refers to a particular spiritual character or significance that derives from an experience of communion with God or communications from God that transcends human calculation and comprehension. The word refers to that which is unseen, mysterious in its origin and influence.
This is the point that John Bunyan makes in such a homely way in his second great allegory of salvation and the Christian life, The Holy War. There is a character in that allegory named Mr. God’s-peace whom Prince Emmanuel appointed the governor of Mansoul. Of this Mr. God’s-peace Bunyan tells us that “he was not a native of the town; he came down with his Prince from the court above.” In that lovely way Bunyan is reminding us that the peace of God is not a human achievement, it cannot be worked up by effort nor is it the good fortune of those who happen to find that they have calm personalities or who enjoy a great measure of prosperity and worldly pleasure and find themselves with little to complain of. No, this peace comes from God. It is his gift and his work and it partakes of his own nature. It comes down from the court above.
There is, of course, a very practical definition of this peace given here. It is not the whole of this peace, but it is a large and important part of it. “Be anxious for nothing” Paul exhorts us in v. 6. Being anxious is the practical opposite of the peace of God. But, of course, in those simple words hangs a great tale. For most people imagine true peace to be the condition of having nothing to worry about. For Paul true peace is not being anxious no matter that there are all sorts of problems, difficulties, sorrows, and disappointments that you must face in life. This peace, God’s peace, is a condition that fills a heart in defiance of expectations, no matter the existence of reasonable fears and even crushing disappointments.
In regard to what is really a parallel passage to ours this morning the Lord commands us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about our lives but rather to seek first his kingdom and righteousness. And he assures us that if we do that, put his kingdom first, all the rest – food, clothing, the necessities of life – will be added to us according to our needs. Don’t worry; don’t be anxious, about tomorrow, he tells us, for your heavenly Father will care for you.
Concerning that commandment and that promise, G.K. Chesterton remarked:
“Christ said ‘Seek first the kingdom and all these things shall be added to you.’ Buddha said, ‘Seek first the kingdom and then you will need none of these things.’” [Everlasting Man, 338]
But, as with Jesus, there is nothing world-renouncing in Paul’s understanding of peace. It is not found in ignoring or not caring about what happens around you or to you. It is not in any way a kind of psychological separation from the tumult, even the tragedy of human life. God’s peace is world and human life affirming; it is even struggle and hardship affirming. The world’s peace, such as it may be, must either deny or belittle the conditions of human life, on the one hand, or find them very favorable on the other. Paul does not deny that the Philippian Christians have and will have troubles. Some of those troubles will be the direct result of their loyalty to Jesus Christ. No matter, says Paul. You can be and you ought to be living in peace, your hearts serene, your demeanor calm and collected, not because everything is going so well but because the Lord is near. God’s peace is supernatural. It rests on the reality of God as known, loved, and trusted by his people and upon the eschatological reality of the happiest conceivable ending to your life as a follower of Jesus Christ. If you are headed home and soon to be with those you love and who love you and soon to find yourself in a world perfect in every way, living a life that will never end – and that is the heaven that Jesus is preparing for us even now according to the Bible and in our Christian faith – I say, if you have that future in store you can be calm and serene and settled and even-keeled and confident no matter what is happening around you, no matter what is happening to you, no matter how difficult life may become, no matter your enemies, no matter the failures of your friends, no matter that life has turned out for you so differently than you had hoped.
You can be as involved as a Christian ought to be in the warfare for this world now underway between the forces of light and those of darkness. You can find yourself, as Christians do every day, walking across a battlefield strewn with the corpses of the spiritually dead. You can bear in your heart the grief of human woe and still have God’s peace filling your heart and guarding your mind.
There is a Latin phrase that Christians should know: sub specie aeternitatis. It means literally “under the aspect or form of eternity” but it means practically viewing a thing in terms of eternity. And that is Paul’s point here. Christians are to live their lives each day, sub specie aeternitatis, in view of eternity, with a view to what will soon be, with a view to how that soon-coming future ought profoundly to change our view of the present circumstances of life. Things have a very different meaning and a very different aspect if they are considered in reference to what they mean for eternity. Be anxious for nothing. The Lord is near! Troubles can be very heavy but they get much lighter if they are viewed in terms of eternity. The Lord Jesus had to go to the cross – a greater suffering no man has come near to enduring in this world – and yet he was strengthened to endure it, the Scripture says, for the joy that was set before him. On the other side of the cross was a future so magnificent, so wonderful, so happy that the prospect nerved him to bear up under the crisis through which he had to pass for us and our salvation.
Well, says Paul, you are to think of your own life, your own problems and troubles and sorrows in the same way, sub specie aeternitatis, in view of eternity. The Lord is near! Bunyan reminds us of that when he tells us that Mr. God’s-peace, the new governor of Mansoul had two close friends, Mr. Credence (credence is, as you know, another name for faith) and Mr. Good-hope. God’s-peace is connected with faith and hope, with the knowledge of what cannot yet be seen and what Christians know is soon to come to pass. And with God’s-peace in charge of Mansoul and with his friends Mr. Credence and Mr. Good-hope at his side, the city was wonderfully serene. Every man and woman went about his or her business happily and harmony ruled in every part of the town. When you are at peace in your heart, it is so much easier to be at peace with everyone else!
In view of eternity a certain kind of peace is a horrible thing. A peace that puts men to sleep spiritually and makes them uninterested in God and salvation is no blessing; it is in fact a curse. Remember how the prophets of God condemned the false prophets and priests for proclaiming peace when there was no peace, for giving people a sense of well-being when they were, in fact, storing up God’s wrath for themselves. Far better that men have storms in their hearts than the cold comfort of lies!
“They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart they say, ‘no evil shall come upon you.’”
The refrain of these preachers – and there have always been multitudes of them – was “Peace, peace” even when there was no real peace. What they took for peace was simply the calm before the storm of God’s wrath and judgment. As Father Mapple cried in his sermon in Moby Dick, “Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale!” There must be a taking away of false peace, worldly and human peace, before a man or woman can know the peace of God. In view of eternity, a worldly peace that must ignore God and his judgment, that must ignore the future, is like the worthless piece of paper that Neville Chamberlain waved to the crowd greeting his return from his conference with Hitler concerning Czechoslovakia. He had secured, he said, “peace in our time.” That peace was to last for a few months and herald the greatest bloodbath this world has ever seen. And now everyone thinks of Chamberlain as one of the great fools of the modern world, proclaiming peace when there was no peace.
It is only in view of eternity, from the vantage point that our knowledge of what is to come provides, that we can tell what real peace is or distinguish it from its imitations. That peace is the conviction, holding sway in one’s heart, a conviction sought by the believer and granted by God, that in every important and ultimate sense, all is well. It is the conviction of the truth of what God your father and Christ your savior has said, has promised, has guaranteed to you. Such things as these:
- If God is for us who can be against us?
- I will never leave you nor forsake you.
- I have gone to prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.
- All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
- Cast your cares upon the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
- No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
- Trust in the Lord with all your heart…and he will make your paths straight.
- Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.
- I have never seen the righteous begging bread.
- He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not along with him graciously give us all things.
- …even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
- Behold I am coming quickly.
- To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
And when these truths, these facts – for facts they are – are present to the mind; and when the heart is turned to God in thanksgiving for these things, his peace fills the heart. He draws near and fills your heart with his peace.
What is it that you worry about? Is it money? Many worry about money. Others worry about their health or the health of a loved one. Some worry about their marriage or their children or their job. Some are to the place where they worry about death. And there is, as we said, a way to be concerned about these things in an entirely godly manner, as Timothy worried about the Philippians and their spiritual welfare. But the kind of worry that forgets the sovereignty of God, his immutable love for his people, Christ’s finished work, the certainty of our salvation, the glories of heaven to come, that kind of worry is simply sin. It is ingratitude for what God is and has done for us. It is forgetfulness of his immeasurably great gifts. And it is not only inexcusable, it is damaging.
“There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin.” [Barclay in Morris, Matthew, 163] It is a pointless and foolish thing. It is a waste. Jesus reminded us of this himself: “Who by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” We fritter away our precious spiritual energy on nothing. Paul would not have said to these Christians, “Do not be anxious about anything…” if he didn’t expect that they were in fact tempted to worry in ways they should not. And he would not have said, “The Lord is near” if he did not suspect that their worrying was a failure to remember and take to heart the great facts of their Christian faith.
How many times have we had to admit, we who have been Christians for any length of time, that time and again we have worried over nothing. We worked ourselves up into a stew for days or weeks or months or even years and then God rebuked us by wonderfully meeting our needs and we have had, alas, to mix our thanksgiving for his faithfulness with regret that we carried ourselves so badly beforehand. We had so little faith and so little hope in the Lord who is near. Admit it to yourself: your worrying is sinful and unworthy and utterly unnecessary. It is not proper for a Christian to stew as you have been stewing about this or that, as if God were not on his throne, as if his promises to you were not Yea and Amen in Jesus Christ; as if the Lord were not near. It is dishonorable for a Christian to take so much from Christ’s hand and then act as if our infinite Redeemer has nothing more to give us or as if his love has come to its end or as if the immediate present were the true measure our lives. Face facts: this worrying of ours is unbelief, pure and simple.
If the Lord Christ in his glory were standing next to you and you could see his angels hovering above him like Gehazi at Dothan in Elisha’s time, you would worry neither about that bill that needs to be paid nor the trouble at work nor the stress in your home nor that twinge in your body that you fear may portend the appearance of a serious illness. You’d forget all about all of those things and be joyfully taken up in your Lord and Savior. And if you had felt the twinge and even if you knew it to be the first sign of some deadly cancer, you would feel – I guarantee you, you would feel – a thrill that you might so soon leave this world and be where you will always be with Christ in his glory and with the angels of God.
John Newton wrote in his old age:
“I am now in my seventy-second year. I know what the world can do and cannot do. It cannot soothe the wounded conscience; nor enable us to meet death with contempt. It can neither give nor take away the peace of God which passeth all understanding. One only can do this.”
Christians ought to be happy people. Their faith ought to make them so. Paul says that as we saw last week. A morose or gloomy Christian ought to be an oxymoron and a shock and surprise to all of us. The world should, of course, see our joy. We have more than enough to be absurdly happy about! But it is just as clear that our faith, our principles, and, supremely, our knowledge of God and Christ and our sure and certain hope of heaven ought also to make us calm, serene, unworried people. A Christian worrywart ought also to seem to us a very odd bird and leave us scratching our heads. And when we sense to even the slightest degree that we are behaving as one, we ought to catch ourselves, give ourselves a shake, give thanks to God for the thousand magnificent reasons we have to be at peace – no matter our circumstances – take a deep breath, look up to heaven, relax and return to living as we should and as any faithful servant will want to for the few days that remain before we see the Lord.