Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Peace of God overcomes fear. God of peace overcomes doubt.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 4:1-9
In his closing exhortations, Paul appeals to the hearts and minds of the Philippians, combining Jewish piety with Greek thinking. Right focus, right prayer, and right thinking are a sure counter to the debilitating effects of doubt and mistrust that seem to have infected the leaders of this church.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Phil 4:4
Getting Started: Things to Think About
A Really Fun Game of Sabotage!
There are lots of party games based on the idea of one untrustworthy person undermining the rest of the group. They can take a while, so here's a made-up game that can be quick. I'm sure you can tweak these rules to match your group!
If you have enough people for two teams, you can make this a competition.
Secretly tell one person on each team that they are a "saboteur" who wants to prevent the team from completing the task. That has to remain a secret!
Give them a difficult-but-not-impossible task that they could complete in just a minute or two (I'm thinking about a block tower or a house of cards or a marshmallow and toothpick tower or the like -- you may have to bring supplies!).
The first team to complete the task (within the given time limit) wins! But warn them that someone on their team is a saboteur. Duh duh duhn.
Really simple. In my mind, there should be a weird dynamic of people trying to get the task done while not really trusting anyone. Eventually, they will figure out who the saboteur is, and then I wonder how they will try to "ineffectualize" them.
Anyway, there would be a really simple point: if you don't trust everybody you are working with, it's a lot harder to get the job done.
Trust in the Workplace
Judging from the number of articles I saw online, "trust in the workplace" is apparently really hard to come by. While a generic search for "lack of trust" or "trust issues" mainly comes back to marital relationships, a focused search reveals a plethora of advice for how to build trust in the workplace.
My guess is that every one of us has at one time or another dealt with a lack of trust in a workplace. Do you remember how it was dealt with? I remember one of my teams being sent on a "team-building retreat" (this was before I went into church work) to do "team-building exercises". [That sent me on a nostalgia kick. Here's a website that compiled 20 team/trust-building exercises, some of which I have done.] While I remember that retreat being good for morale, I don't remember how well it helped our trust issues.
How about you? Has your workplace successfully addressed trust issues?
The follow-up question is simple: what happened if your workplace failed to address trust issues? What's it like working in a place where people don't entirely trust one another?
If you're not exactly sure what I mean, here are summaries of two articles (that more or less say the same thing as all of the other articles on the topic):
One blog (actually called "Leading with Trust") identified five stages of distrust:
An article on Forbes identified these symptoms of a lack of trust:
Sharing information with senior management only
Forming a clique / silo (withholding information)
Not giving someone authority to do their responsibility
Rewarding individuals rather than teams
The transition into the lesson is simple: if trust is essential for a healthy and productive workplace, how is a church to survive if the members don't trust one another?
This Week's Big Idea: "Trust" in the Bible
In both Greek and Hebrew, the word we see as "trust" is usually the verb form of the word for "faith". (In English, we don't use "faith" as a verb.) Consequently, most word studies related to "trust" focus on faith, namely our faith in God.
So, what about when we focus on trust between people? Well, much of what the Bible says is pretty negative:
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humanity. (Ps 118:8)
Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them, since he knew them all (John 2:24)
And that's because people tend not to be trustworthy. Sadly, we all know this from experience, and we have all been that untrustworthy person (at times). The Proverbs warn us that even the most righteous person is capable of breaking trust:
A righteous person who yields to the wicked is like a muddied spring or a polluted well. (Prov 25:26)
But that is not to say that people are incapable of being trustworthy. Far be it! In fact, our potential trustworthiness is the foundation of a stable society. (Think about it -- how could anyone drive a tiny car on the freeway, or withdraw cash from the bank, or let a contractor into your home if you didn't trust the people around you to an extent?) But Jesus has to point out the importance of being trustworthy, implying that the people around Him didn't take it very seriously or perhaps took it for granted:
Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much. (Luke 16:10)
Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one. (Matt 5:33-37)
That second admonition, which comes from the Sermon on the Mount, encapsulates everything Jesus teaches us about trust: Jesus expects us to be fully trustworthy to one another. We should never have to swear an oath -- we should simply say what we mean and be taken at our word.
If church members can do/be that to one another, then our churches will be in significantly better shape than if we don't fully trust one another, think that we have one another's best interests in heart, and share the same goal/direction. All of that relates back to trust (which is why secular work sites have so much to say about it). Trust is foundational to a healthy church.
And it seems like there were some trust issues in Philippi.
Where We Are in Philippians
Paul is giving his final exhortations to the church. Based on what he has learned from Epaphroditus, he has diagnosed some "problems". His solutions to the problems have appeared throughout the letter (Paul is such a clever author!), and he addresses them one last time here.
Fear/anxiety/opposition -- Apparently, the church has faced opposition, and Paul's own imprisonment has made church members afraid for their own lives. Over and over again, Paul has told them to stand firm and not be afraid of anyone who opposes them.
Humility/putting others first -- Apparently, leaders in the church haven't been thinking about other's needs but instead have been building "silos" and not agreeing with one another's priorities or goals.
Keeping the main thing the main thing -- All of that seems to stem from the basic fact that leaders in the church have lost sight of what's really important, namely holding the gospel of Jesus out in a dark and dying world.
Consider what Paul said all the way back in 1:27-28:
Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel, not being frightened in any way by your opponents.
Pretty great, huh?
IV. Paul shares his heart with the Philippians (4:2-20)
a. Be reconciled with one another (4:2-3)
b. Don’t be anxious about anything (4:4-7)
c. Keep your thoughts on Jesus (4:8-9)
d. Be content in your circumstances (4:10-13)
e. Stay generous (4:14-20)
V. Closing (4:21-23)
Full disclosure: I don't mean to oversimplify things by focusing on "trust" as my "big idea" for the day. By all means, highlight whatever elements of the passage that jump out to you! I chose "trust" partly because I really haven't focused on it in these Bible study notes. It's an easy topic to apply, and it's a part of everything Paul is saying. Church members living in fear because they don't trust God. Church members not being humble because they don't trust how other church members will treat them in return. Church members losing sight of what's important because they don't trust people like Paul who are trying to keep them on track.
We will have one more lesson in Philippians next week.
Part 1: Stand (Philippians 4:1)
So then, my dearly loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my joy and crown, in this manner stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.
The cynic is going to say that Paul is trying too hard to be nice here. The careful reader is going to realize that Paul simply cares deeply about these Christians, and when he thinks about them, these kinds of words just gush out. They are not only "brothers and sisters" (remember -- the term for "brothers" was generic, kind of like how I use "guys" today, and applied to the entire audience) -- they are my brothers and sisters. They are my dear brothers and sisters. They are my friends, people I dearly love and long for. Paul wants to see them so badly that he aches.
And as someone who loves them so much, what does Paul want most for them? "In this manner stand firm in the Lord." In what manner?
Well, it ties back to what Paul just said about following his example (3:15-21) which involved rejecting the person he used to be (3:1-14) and living like Jesus (2:1-17). How well can you summarize what Paul said in chapters 2 and 3, and how easily can you turn that summary into a simple bullet point list?
For starters, your list will have to include the idea of living every day with eternity in mind, both for you and the people around you. It will have to include living for others as Jesus did. It will have to include working together with other church members without complaining and arguing. How would you word all of the ideas in these two chapters such that you could read them every morning and be focused for your day?
Let's not lose two very cool words that Paul throws in here. "Joy" has been a theme for Philippians (the Lifeway lessons have used it in every title). How could Paul have joy while in prison, with the real possibility of being executed? Because the Philippians are his joy. Thinking about them gave Paul the courage and focus he needed to stand firm in his circumstances.
[I know I'm on an island here, but when I was a teen, I liked the "Hook" movie with Robin Williams. Anyway, toward the end of the movie when Peter Pan is reconciling with his kids, he tells them that his "happy thought" (which is what one apparently needs to be able to fly) is them. For whatever reason, that stuck with me. I'm pretty sure the writers of the movie did not draw any inspiration from the Bible, but wherever they got that idea from was inspired by the Bible.]
"Crown" is metaphorical. In 1 Cor 9:25, Paul clarifies that he has in mind the wreath of celery leaves that the winner of an athletic contest would wear on his head as the proof of victory. Essentially, what Paul is saying is that when he stands before Jesus at the end of history, he will look around and see the Christians from Philippi and know that everything he did was worth it. He "won" in the sense of keeping the prize before him, running the race hard, and finishing the race well.
Likewise, Paul wants them to stand firm for the same reasons.
What reasons do you have to stand firm? When you are faced with opposition or adversity, what specific reasons can you look to to reject the temptation to give up?
Part 2: Unite (Philippians 4:2-3)
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I also ask you, true partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the book of life.
This is an interesting burst of names:
Euodia -- means "good road" (right way) or perhaps "sweet fragrance"
Syntyche -- means "with fortune" or "common fate" (sihn'-tih-kee)
Syzygos -- means "true partner" or "fellow worker" (soot'-zoo-goss)
Clement -- means "calm" or "peaceful"
Paul doesn't usually call people out by name when talking about internal church matters. That led my seminary professor to wonder if Paul was using actual names ("Syzygos" was the only of the four not to be a common first name in the day) or perhaps nicknames intended to reinforce Paul's main point, i.e.:
"Right way" and "common fate" aren't working well together right now, but "true partner" and "peaceful" and the other coworkers are doing their best to make up for it.
The English translations probably get it right -- Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement are probably proper names, and Syzygos is probably adjectival (see Paul's use of "you") -- but I do think it's fun to consider the meaning of their names.
So, what's the problem with Euodia and Syntyche? Paul doesn't say, but there are some things we know for sure. These two women aren't the bad guys Paul has been warning about elsewhere in the letter. On the contrary, they had been with Paul from the early days of the work in Philippi, helping him build, grow, and lead the church there. They worked together and with Paul, and Paul trusted them just as he did other church leaders (like Clement).
But for whatever reason, they stopped seeing eye to eye (to use a modern phrase). Maybe one of them started developing personal ambitions. Maybe one of them wanted to focus the church inward due to danger. Maybe their personal priorities were diverging from what Paul had left them with. We don't know and Paul doesn't say. And that's intentional.
Remember, Paul sent these letters with the intent to be read out loud to the gathered church. It was probably going to be a little awkward when they all heard this together for the first time. So, Paul did not specify the problem, nor did he take sides. He simply told the church that they needed to work together to get through this rift. What I love the most about that tactic is how infinitely applicable it still is or us today -- "Y'all are a church family! Figure this out." It's tremendous.
But why did Paul single out Clement and this one particular "fellow worker"? We don't know. My guess is that Paul knew that there would be one or two specific people in the church who would be able to connect with both Euodia and Syntyche. That really should only make sense to us. In every church I've been a part, there are certain people who were just better able to defuse certain squabbles than others. Paul was just trying to set them up to succeed.
Paul throws in one last motivation: "whose names are written in the book of life". This simple phrase accomplishes three things:
It lets us know that the squabble isn't just a personal difference between two church leaders but the focus of the church on the gospel of Jesus. There will always be personal differences, but when it starts to take the church off track, the whole church needs to work together to deal with them.
It gives encouragement to the church members to stay focused and dedicated. As everyone knows (two years into COVID), after a while you just get tired of keeping on and you start to question if it's worth it. This reference to "the book of life" (which we learn more about in Revelation) reminds them that it's absolutely worth it.
It's also a subtle "you'd better figure this out now because you're going to be spending eternity together". Of course, we won't bring our sinful and petty disagreements with us into heaven, but I always find it helpful to keep an eternal perspective when dealing with inter-personal matters here.
Do you let personal matters with other church members keep you from focusing on God's "big purpose" for your life? What can you do about that?
[Totally less important, but still a valid application -- how about in your workplace? Do personal disagreements between coworkers keep your business from accomplishing what you're supposed to? What can you do about that?]
Aside: "The Book of Life"
This is a rare thing for Paul to mention -- it's a Hebrew concept that goes back to Exodus 32:31-33,
31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a grave sin; they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 Now if you would only forgive their sin. But if not, please erase me from the book you have written.” 33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will erase from my book."
By Psalm 28:28, this idea of God's faithful being recorded in a book has been codified ("Let them be erased from the book of life and not be recorded with the righteous."). This book is the record of everyone God considers part of His people.
This idea became fixed in apocalyptic literature, especially Revelation.
At that time Michael, the great prince who stands watch over your people, will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape. (Dan 12:1)
“In the same way, the one who conquers will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before my Father and before his angels." (Rev 3:5)
The Holman Dictionary highlights these characteristics: those whose names are in this book of life have been born into God's family by Jesus (Heb 12:23), remain faithful in worship (Rev 13:8), and are untouched by abomination (Rev 21:27).
The Greek equivalent would be the civic register of everyone considered a citizen of a city. You might remember from Acts that being a Roman citizen was a big deal that came with certain privileges. People tracked citizenship very carefully.
Remember that last week, Paul clearly said that the Philippians needed to think like citizens of heaven, not citizens of the Roman Empire. It would only make sense, then, that he ups the ante with this image -- if you care about your name being recorded in any book of citizenship, let it be God's book of life.
Part 3: Pray (Philippians 4:4-7)
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
These final passages are some of the most well-known and memorized of the whole book, and for good reason. Memorize these verses so as to let them encourage you!
Remember that rejoice/joy is a concept like "love" -- it's a choice, not a feeling. I really don't have a whole lot else to add.
Paul routinely ends his letters with "staccato imperatives", and those are some of my very favorite verses in the Bible. (See Romans 15, 1 Cor 16, and so on.) There are two sets here: vv. 4-7 and vv. 8-9, both ending with a promise about the peace of God / God of peace. The first set is about the heart; the second is about the mind. And really, when you boil it down, the first set is Jewish, and the second is Greek. Taken together, they give us a beautiful picture of a Christian life well-lived.
The imperatives are (basically) to rejoice and to pray. That's the foundation of the Book of Psalms. We rejoice because the Lord is near, and we pray because we know God listens. The outward result of someone whose life is characterized by rejoicing and prayer is gentleness, and the inward result is peace. "Gentleness" is essentially graciousness and patience, and "peace" is that wholeness that comes from not being in conflict or strife. In other words, Paul is just restating the entire letter one more time.
What's the right attitude for this? Thanksgiving. Anyone who understands what Jesus has done for us will be eternally thankful. And a person who is thoroughly thankful will not become selfish or ambitious. See how this all fits together?
The result? The "peace of God" will guard your hearts (this section) and minds (next section) in Jesus. This phrase is very much like the phrases I pointed out last week ("the righteousness of God" and "the faith of Christ"). Does this mean our peace with God? Peace from God? God's wholeness? It's probably all of those. Because of Christ Jesus, we have peace with God (see Romans 5), and further, because of the pouring out of the Spirit, we have peace within ourselves, enabling us to be at peace with one another. It's a truly priceless gift.
And Paul lets us in on a big secret: this peace of God "transcends understanding". Remember how Paul addressed the Jewish and Greek mindsets in 1 Cor 1?
22 For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.
This kind of peace doesn't make sense to the "rational" mind. Paul is in prison. He could lose his life. There is no rational way he can be at peace with this. And yet he is.
Let me get through the next section, including a very cool turn of phrase, and then I will put these two sections together.
Part 4: Dwell (Philippians 4:8-9)
8 Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things. 9 Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
We are at the "final" exhortation. Paul pairs his Jewish instruction with Greek -- an emphasis on moral excellence was paramount in Greek life. This list is just a very poetic way to describe that moral excellence. As with a lot of Paul's lists, this isn't intended to be exhaustive but representative:
True -- not a lie, factual
Honorable -- worthy of respect
Just -- morally right (righteous)
Pure -- not tainted by evil (holy)
Lovely -- things worthy of love
Commendable -- things worthy of admiration
In the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, things like that were virtues, and they were to be prized for their own sake. That's probably why Paul called special attention to the last two items ("moral excellence" and "praiseworthy"). In Greek thinking, those things would have been self-evident and self-existent. But by putting them in a section about how our minds are guarded in Christ Jesus, Paul had made it clear that the definition of excellence is not ours, but God's. The standard of moral excellence is God's righteousness. The ultimate example of praiseworthiness is Jesus.
[Plug for David's Wednesday night class: the world we live in (post-modern) defines truth and everything else on that list as relative, in the eye of the beholder. But to God, these things are not relative. It takes wisdom and knowledge and discernment to know what's what.]
Those are the things we should be thinking about.
In the first section, we learn that the person who prays (with thanksgiving) will receive the peace of God. In this section, we learn that the person who thinks about the right things will receive the God of peace. I think that Paul is using a clever play of words that can be best understood when both sections are taken together.
The Christian life is a balance of heart and mind. Of having a vibrant spiritual relationship with God and also having a vibrant knowledge of God.
A person who leans on the "heart" side of that pair will find a great enemy is "fear", and the killer of fear is peace. A person who leans on the "mind" side of that pair will find a great enemy in "doubt", and the killer of doubt is God's presence.
But Paul is telling even more great things to us. If we tend toward the "heart" side, we need to practice thinking about the right things, namely learning God's Word. And if we tend toward the "mind" side, we need to practice praying and rejoicing.
Why? Because we are a whole person -- a whole person is both heart and mind. We think and we feel. We think and we do. Put these together, and we have a simple, powerful prescription for the Christian life.
And once again, Paul offers himself as an example -- not for lack of humility! This is him simply trying to be helpful. We all know Christians who seem to excel at one or the other. For example, I work hard at knowing the Bible, and I have a deep faith in God, but my spiritual disciplines leave something to be desired. When I've had conversations about this with my friends, it seems that we tend to emphasize one side or the other.
Paul excelled at both.
Seriously. Paul wrote the book of Romans, for goodness's sake. And he's also the man who prayed and sung a miracle in prison, resulting in a man's salvation and a church being planted. If we want to know what a life looks like marked by right thinking and also by right inward relationship with God, then Paul is an excellent starting place!
And Paul gives them two avenues: (1) the content of the things he taught them (and also wrote to them), and (2) the example of the things they saw him do while they ministered together. Taught and caught (which is better by far than either taught or caught).
The result? They should be able to embrace what is good all around them (because God is at work all around them). But that will require discernment, right thinking.
It's a simple summary and application: go back through verses 4-9 and write down everything Paul is telling us to do. Then, think about what would happen in our churches if all of us decided to do all of that together.
I've based my lesson notes on the word "trust", and that gives me my closing thoughts -- the more we trust God, the less we will worry about how other people will fail us. And the more we are trustworthy, the more we can help the people around us trust God. And then together, in the power of Jesus Christ, we can change our world.
Which of these commands do you need to focus on this week? Our church needs us to be individually faithful to the Lord and together united in the Lord.