Call to Excellence and Thanksgiving for the Gift


Philippians 4:1-23


Whereas it is true that there is a real informal air to Philippians, the concept that we are citizens of the kingdom of God seems to be the thread that connects the different parts of Philippians together. This theme leads to the natural result of excellence. Why should the Philippians strive to live excellent lives? Because of the fact that they are part of something grand. Christ has established God's kingdom of which they are citizens. As heady as it is to be a citizen of the Roman empire, the world's mightiest empire up until that time, how far more wonderful it is to be a part of the kingdom of God. Paul stresses this theme several times in Philippians: 1:27; 2:5-11; 3:12-14; 3:20, 21. Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker theologian of the 20th century, in fact said: "[In light of what Christ has done for us,] mediocrity is a heresy and a sin." Christ has not called us to mediocrity but to excellence.

As a result we will look at chapter 4 in light of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. Being an excellent citizen in this kingdom means that we are to stand firm even during the midst of the storm, we are to live in harmony with other Christians, we are to rejoice, we are to live peaceful lives produced by prayer, and we are to allow only things of excellence to enter our minds.


The first way we are to live lives of excellence is by standing firm in the midst of the troubles that afflict us. Even though the Philippians were experiencing some form of persecution from their Roman neighbors and even though they were about to be beset by false teachers from 2 radically different spheres, Paul tells them not to cave in to these pressures but instead to stand firm.

The idea behind the command to stand firm would especially be meaningful to Paul because of its military connotations. He was constantly surrounded by soldiers from the Praetorium guard; therefore, it was only natural that his thoughts had a military flavor to them. Soldiers during the heat of the battle were to stand firm. I like what George S. Patton once said: "I never fall back because I don't believe in fighting for the same real estate twice." The Spartans were especially adamant about standing firm during the battle. They said that if a soldier returned home, he had better come back either holding his shield or else lying on top of it dead. If he came back without the shield, it meant that he had dropped it during battle in order to flee from the enemy because the shield was too heavy to run with while fleeing. To help the soldier stand his ground, the Romans attached small spikes to the bottom of his sandals/shoes so that he could get a good footing. Paul urges us to do the same. There's to be no retreat no matter the cause. We are to stand our ground against our persecutors and against those who would pervert the truth of the gospel.

Why should they stand firm? So that they will be his joy and crown. When Paul calls them his joy and crown, he is continuing the theme of the return of the Messiah and the consummation of His kingdom (Phil. 3:20, 21). On that day Paul says the fact that they remained grounded in their commitment to Christ will give him great joy. He will joyfully be able to point to them as proof that he did not labor in vain (2: ). Moreover, they will also be his crown on that day, crown in the sense that they will be the basis for his rewards from Christ and also in the sense they are his glory, his grounds for boasting, whenever he stands before Christ in judgment.


Paul appeals to the Philippians to excellence in relationships. Throughout Philippians Paul has been alluding to the need of the Philippians to maintain a spirit of unity amongst themselves (2:1-18). Apparently there has been a little problem in the church which has been creating disunity. It has not been major; otherwise, Paul would have dealt with it sooner and in greater detail. On the other hand, this problem does have the potential to create some real damage in the church; therefore, Paul addresses it. [That the problem involves 2 women should not surprise us since women most likely dominated the make-up of the church. In fact when Paul first evangelized the Philippians, only women made up the audience (Acts 16:13).]

Observe the situation Paul is facing. First, he does deal with it. Many times churches and ministers just try to ride out the storm. Sometimes when that happens, the storm gets unnecessarily a lot worse before it subsides. A little bit of pastoral or church intervention could have kept the situation from spiraling out of control. (Yes, the women should have been able to take care of it themselves; however, they were not taking care of it. As a result Paul did have to step in.) Second, he takes a direct approach. He does not beat about the bush or use some obscure illustration in a sermon to address the issue. Instead, he names names. Third, apparently the disagreement is over something trivial. It's neither ethical nor theological; otherwise, Paul would have addressed it. Instead, it's probably a matter of judgment. (One lady once jokingly told me that if she and her husband ever divorced it would be over something trivial. When anything major happened, they were able to sit down and talk it out. The little things are what eat at relationships.) In all likelihood the stresses brought on by persecution is taking its toll on these 2 women. They need to remember that they are not the enemy. Rather they need each other and need to repair their relationship so that they can lovingly support each other during these harsh times.


In light of the fact that we are part of some grand cosmic design, what should be our response to the persecutions and to the theological threats facing us? We are TO REJOICE! Throughout this letter Paul has repeatedly called us to a lifestyle of rejoicing and of joy. The word "Joy" or one of its cognates appears no less than 16 times, leading some scholars to claim that joy is the theme of the letter. It is not; the fact that we are citizens of God's kingdom and how that should affect our conduct is the theme. Joy though is a natural result from being a part of this kingdom. It is true that Christians can go through unspeakable stress, even unspeakable hell on earth--either from persecution, financial loss, physical torments, relational disruptions, etc. Yet when we put all these things into proper perspective, whenever we remember what is coming down the pike for us because we are citizens of God's kingdom, then our ultimate response should be joy. When it is all said and done, it is going to be alright. Even better than alright. It is going to be wonderful! Paul said earlier: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). When we get ahold of this concept, we will live in constant joy regardless the circumstances: imprisonment (Phil. 1:13), attacks by false Christians (1:15, 17), persecutions from neighbors (1:28-30), oroo attacks from false teachers (3:1-19). Present circumstances should not dictate our attitude. Our future in God's kingdom should be what determines our attitude.

Because of what the future holds for us as citizens of God's kingdom, we should not lash out at another. Instead we should show a forebearing spirit, a spirit of gentleness, to our persecutors and even to the safe targets in our lives. Only confidence in our future can produce that kind of forebearing spirit. Moreover, it is a future that is not only certain, it is also near. The Christian hope for every generation is that Christ is about to return. This hope should especially excite you and me because of current events in the Middle East. Maybe everything over there will dissipate; however, this time they may not but may actually usher in the return of Christ. No matter what happens there though, our response should always be joy.


From a human perspective the Philippians have every reason to fret. They are facing persecution from a powerful Roman government. They are about to be beset with false teachers from the ranks of the Judaizers and from the Libertines. These do not even include the normal wear and tear of life. Yet Paul commands the Philippians to be anxious for nothing. In the Greek Paul emphasizes the word "nothing." He isn't saying, "Don't worry about the keys you can't find; however, it is understandable if you are fretting about the Romans arresting you." He commands us to worry about absolutely nothing.

In commanding this, Paul stands in good company. It is highly likely that he is basing this command upon Jesus' instructions on anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus likewise commands us not to be anxious. Whereas Jesus stresses the futility of worry [you can't change it anyway by worrying (Matt. 6:27)], Paul gives us the way to escape the tyranny of worry--pray! Peace does not come naturally; anxiety does. The only way to combat anxiety is to pray.

Why does prayer relieve us of anxiety? Because it connects us with the One who is not stressed out at all. No matter what situation I am in, God is totally at peace with that situation. God is so stable, He is so much at peace at all times that Isaiah can call God "a Rock" (Is. 26:4). Storms don't budge huge boulders. No matter what hits, they remain firmly in place. In the same way, God is not flitting around with every gust of wind. He remains stable. By praying, we get in tune with the God of peace, of stability.

Another way that peace comes through prayer is that as we pray, we come to realize that the One we are praying to is seriously concerned about all our situations. He's not only at peace with our situations (which is one thing), He is also concerned about our situations (which is quite another matter). You can be at peace and yet not care. Not so God. Jesus reminds us that if God cares for birds and flowers, which do not have souls but are rather here today and gone tomorrow, then how much more does He care for us who are the crown jewels of His creation (Matt. 6:30).

He's not only at peace with our situations, He not only cares about our situations, as the exalted Lord of the universe (Phil. 2:5-11) He is quite capable of taking care of our situations. He may not deliver in ways we think He should; however, He will always do what is ultimately best for you and me. Now that should give us peace. The fact that Paul says we are to pray with "thanksgiving" reinforces this element. If Jesus is truly Lord, then we are to give thanks at all times no matter what our circumstances are. Thanksgiving is the only appropriate response to His lordship. Grumbling and disputing (2:14), such as the Israelites engaged in during the wilderness wanderings, either denies His lordship (He's not in control) or else rejects His wisdom (I could do better than Him).

Once more Paul's circumstances affect his use of terms. He claims that the person who approaches God in prayer in these circumstances will have the peace of God "garrisoning" his heart and mind in Christ Jesus. The idea is that of peace acting like a sentry constantly guarding a person's heart and mind.

Finally, notice that Paul says that this peace surpasses all comprehension. There is no way that you can account for this kind of peace apart from God Himself. You can't manufacture it. You can't explain why you are at peace even when the earth is changing and the mountains are slipping into the heart of the sea (Ps. 46:2). The only explanation is that this peace comes as a gift from God which you must simply claim and take hold of.


The last area Paul addresses is the area of the mind. Although he addresses this last, the mind by no means is the least of the areas. In fact many times when we want to emphasize the importance of something or someone, we place it either at the beginning of the list or at the end. For example, when you read the movie credits, many times the names of some major players come up at the end of the list of characters. In the same way, by placing this topic last Paul is stressing its importance.

It is quite possible when Paul claimed that God's peace guards our minds, he was naturally led to remember the importance of the mind. At the introduction to Paul's discussion on the way to live the life of the Spirit (Rom. 12-15), right after Paul tells us to dedicate our complete selves to Christ (Rom. 12:1), he commands us to transform our minds. The mind is the main battle ground in which victory is either won or lost. Christians either lose or win their spiritual battles there. Paul in these verses instructs us how to win the battle in the mind.

First, he tells us to apply our minds to only certain kinds of thoughts: thoughts that true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and praiseworthy. It's the idea of a person who has a filter put before his eyes which allows only certain things into his vision. For example, during the 60's Polaroid sun glasses were the rage because they filtered out the harmful UV rays and allowed only the "good sunrays" to get into our eyes. In the same way we are to wear spiritual sunglasses which will filter out the evil and allow only the good into our minds. [Too many times we reduce this verse to mean that we should not look at pornography, sensual commercials on TV, etc. Paul though is not telling us what should not come into our minds (which goes without saying); he is telling us what we should put into our minds. This verse is proactive, not reactive.]

Now I can't avoid completely the seediness of life. I should not avoid every book out there that was not written by a non-Christian author. I should evaluate literature and movies, etc., by using the following standard. Does the book try to titilate whenever it speaks about the grime of life or is it like the Bible simply describing that lifestyle and passing a correct moral judgment upon it? Is there anything redeeming to that movie or book? I remember the first time I saw the movie Home Alone. Everybody went on and on about how wonderful it was. Yet it was little more than 1 hour and 58 minutes of a kid badmouthing his parents and then telling them how wrong he was for that attitude during the last 2 minutes. The movie simply added a syrupy ending in order to get away with some questionable attitudes.

Second, remember that v. 9 is attached to v. 8. Paul says that we should not only put excellent things into our minds, we should put the kind of excellent things into our minds that Paul himself would put in. Can you imagine Paul sitting down and watching some of the movies we watch? Can you imagine him listening to some of the music we listen to? Paul may be old-fashioned; however, I need to ask myself the following question. Am I experiencing the same kind of peace and joy that Paul claimed he experienced? If not, then I probably need to let Paul's and Christ's examples dictate what I allow and put into my life.


At last Paul addresses at length the very issue which prompted his writing to the Philippians--their financial gift sent to him by Epaphroditus. (As we saw earlier, addressing this issue last means it is highly important to Paul.) Notice something peculiar about the way Paul addresses this topic. He will make a statement and then almost balance it with an exact opposite statement. There is a fine line between expressing gratitude and developing an attitude of dependency. People who thank others for gifts must be careful that they are not giving thanks so that they can manipulate those same people to give more later.

Paul first informs the Philippians that he is "rejoicing greatly" because they have revived their concern for him as seen in the gift they have just sent him. Indeed they had been concerned before (which he will discuss in v. 15); however, until recently they've really not had a reason to be concerned about Paul and his finances because he had probably been doing quite well. Paul's circumstances had changed though recently. He could no longer support himself by making tents; instead he had to rely exclusively upon the financial aid of the churches. They have correctly adduced his situation and have responded appropriately.

In order not to develop an attitude of dependency though, Paul tells the Philippians for his sake as much as for theirs that when it is all said and done that the amount of money he has ultimately does not determine his attitudes. He has learned how to get along when funds were scarce and he has learned how to get along when funds were plentiful. No matter whether he's had to skip a few meals or he's been able to dine at a banquet, he has learned the secrecy of contentment. He has learned that the power of Christ can sustain him no matter what circumstances he faces: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (4:13). Paul refuses to be ultimately dependent upon the churches for his well-being; he will commit to depend solely upon Jesus. He is self-sufficient because he is Christ-sufficient.

Unfortunately many Christians have taken this verse out of context. They feel like Christ is going to give them strength for whatever situation they are in, no matter who or what got them into that situation. The truth though is that I can know for sure Christ is going to get me through a situation only if He has led me into that situation. If I get myself into a terrible situation, He is not obligated to give me the strength to get through it. He might, and then again He might not. On the other hand, if He leads me into a certain situation, then He is responsible for giving me the strength to get through it.

Next Paul recounts the past history of the Philippians supporting him financially. He then tells them though that his motive in urging them to continue giving is not so that he will profit but so that they will profit. Now Bob Tilton is not the one writing this verse. It is Paul. Does Paul mean that they will profit financially? They just might; however, the primary emphasis is that they will profit spiritually. There is a joy and a peace that come with giving which do not come any other way.

God has really been working on me in this area. I get my little allowance on the 1st and 15th of each month, and I use it for my little creature comforts. Recently I have been feeling like the Lord has directed me to give that money to certain benevolence funds. I thought I would miss those little outings, those little things which make life more enjoyable. I have not missed them at all. What I have experienced instead is a joy in giving that I have been lacking recently. For the past 30 years I have tithed consistently; however, God is now directing me to give (in additioin to the tithe) in ways I would have never considered before. The same promise which Paul applied to the Philippians now applies to me and to all those who give financially in the same way: "My God shall supply all your needs [not necessarily your wants but your needs] according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (4:19).

This promise is only for those Christians who are allowing God to direct them in the way they spend their money. Many Christians take this verse like v. 13 out of context and expect that God will care for them financially even though Christ is not Lord of their finances. There is absolutely no guarantee that this is going to happen.

This is the only way to have financial security both spiritually and materially. Life is too fragile to try to live it out in your own wisdom. I know of a person who has a great job with as much job security and financial security as is humanly possible. Yet out of the blue he got a phone call from the owner of his company who told him that he had just sold the company to somebody this person did not even know. All of a sudden, he experienced the uncertainly and insecurity of life. Who would have ever thought that the world's greatest food retailer (Safeway Food Stores) would basically collapse over night. It has come roaring back recently; however, during that interim period the lives of thousands were radically altered bringing tremendous stress upon them. You can either let the exalted Lord of the universe handle your finances or you can handle them yourself. It's not both/and. It's either/or. The choice is yours.