Shepherding a Church’s Heart
Shepherding a Church’s Heart
Main Idea: In love, Paul shepherds the church by urging them to be united, to rejoice in the Lord, to be gentle, to replace anxiety with God’s peace through prayer, and to think on praiseworthy things.
I. Receiving Paul’s Love (4:1)
II. Receiving Paul’s Counsel (4:2-9)
A. Pursue like-mindedness with other true believers (4:2-3).
B. Rejoice in the Lord (4:4).
C. Be known for graciousness (4:5).
D. Relieve anxiety through prayer (4:6-7).
E. Think on praiseworthy things (4:8-9).
I almost titled this section “Stuff Christians Deal With” because Paul addresses several common problems Christians face. So, do you have at least one problem in your life? How about one problem in your church? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you can identify with Philippians 4:1-9! The apostle Paul speaks about some serious struggles that Christians encounter in this fallen world. These struggles include disputes, joylessness, lack of graciousness, anxiety, and impure thoughts.
Remember, the Philippian church was a great church—indeed, an impressive church—but even great churches, made up of wonderful believers, still struggle with sin and need God’s Word to correct them. We need to take our seat in Paul’s pastoral study (in prison!) and heed his counsel—for our good and for the good of other believers.
Receiving Paul’s Love
Perhaps you’re familiar with Tedd Tripp’s wonderful book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. It’s a tremendous blessing to the church. The good doctor talks about our need to apply the gospel to our children’s hearts carefully and consistently. Here in Philippians 4 we have the tremendous blessing of being addressed by the apostle Paul, who is “shepherding the church’s heart.” He supplies us with gospel-filled instruction for our souls.
In verse 1, a transitional verse, Paul piles up tender expressions to convey his love for the Philippians: “my brothers,” “you are dearly loved and longed for,” “my joy and crown,” and “dear friends.” Clearly, Paul loves the Philippians. This church was his crowning achievement, according to some scholars. His heart soared with joy when he thought about them (1:3-4). As he finishes this joyous letter, he again reassures them of his care for their souls.
All of us who are Christians should also feel loved when we read these verses. The Good Shepherd leads us and ministers grace to us through His inspired Word. Because He loves us, He won’t leave us the same. He convicts us because He loves us, and He wants to complete the good work that He’s started. So as we look at this text, let us say, “Savior, like a shepherd lead us.”
Verse 1 looks back to what’s just been said, and it looks ahead to what follows. In light of all that has been said (“So then”), especially in light of 3:17-21, Paul urges the church to “stand firm,” that is, “stick with it,” “endure,” or “never give up the Christian walk” (Carson, Basics, 98). It’s an appeal to persevere in light of our heavenly citizenship and the Lord Jesus’ climactic return. Because our citizenship is heaven, don’t give up. By God’s grace, keep your eyes on faithful examples, and don’t adopt the patterns of those who are self-absorbed. Don’t adopt the patterns of those who glory in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. Paul is encouraging the church to keep living the Christian life faithfully, and we need to apply his counsel to our souls. In your marriage, with your finances, in your parenting, in your struggle against temptation, in gospel mission, in prayer—never give up the Christian walk!
The transitional verse also looks ahead. Paul wants the Philippians to walk in the way that he’s about to describe (Carson, Basics, 99). He wants them to persevere in their work toward unity, to continue showing graciousness, to continue rejoicing, to continue praying for God to relieve anxiety, and to continue thinking noble thoughts.
By what power do we endure? He doesn’t simply tell the church to stand firm. He tells them the way in which they will persevere: “in the Lord.” We need this reminder as well. Our strength isn’t in how long we’ve been Christians, how much we know about the Bible, or how many mission trips we’ve been on. Our strength for standing firm is in our union with Christ. Take a moment to scan verses 1-9 and notice how often Paul mentions the centrality of a relationship with Jesus Christ for these exhortations to be lived out:
- “agree in the Lord” (v. 2)
- “Rejoice in the Lord” (v. 4)
- “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7)
This means if you’re not a Christian, look no further for application to your life. You need to be “in Christ.” Paul mentions having your name in the “book of life” (v. 3). That’s what you need! You need to know Jesus. If you are a believer, then realize Paul isn’t calling you to simply “try harder.” The exhortations that follow do require effort, but they are empowered through our union with Jesus, and they are “supercharged” through our communion with Jesus. So let’s heed these instructions with hope, believing that we can change in these areas because of Christ.
Receiving Paul’s Counsel
In verses 2-9 Paul strings together several exhortations (though one could treat vv. 2-3 separately). In other letters Paul piles up exhortations, as in Romans 12:9-21 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22. Sometimes he piles up various virtues or vices (Gal 5:19-24). Given the nature of these rapid-fire points, commentators outline such passages differently. The same is true here. We’ve decided to outline it in five parts, paying attention to five challenges.
There’s nothing really new here, though. The themes in this section have already been touched on previously in the letter. Paul urges unity among believers in 4:2-3. This theme was also in 1:27–2:4. The theme of rejoicing in 4:5 has been highlighted several times (1:18; 2:17; 3:1). The idea of gentleness, graciousness, or forbearance in 4:5 was touched on in 2:1-3. Paul mentions prayer in 4:6-7, and he underscores the importance of prayer in 1:3-11. Paul’s appeal to noble character in 4:8-9 reminds us of character qualities highlighted in 2:3,14-15 and elsewhere in the letter (Witherington, Friendship and Finances, 110–11). Additionally, in these exhortations Paul continues to emphasize the gospel, the Lord’s presence, and the idea of being “in Christ.” It’s as though Paul were collecting and restating many of his central ideas from the letter in these exhortations. Let’s look at each of these Christian struggles and apply Paul’s counsel to our own souls.
The problem. Paul makes a final call for unity in these verses. The obvious problem has to do with a disagreement between two ladies. The most striking thing about Paul’s appeal is its directness. So far his appeals for unity have been general, but here he calls out specific people! Can you imagine these two ladies sitting in the congregation, listening attentively to the letter being read to the church corporately, when all of a sudden—“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” Talk about an awkward moment! Apart from the Pastoral Epistles and the book of Philemon, the only other personal exhortation like this is found in Colossians 4:17, where Arichippus is encouraged to complete his ministry, which suggests an indirect criticism from Paul. Unlike that example, however, Paul expresses a clear rebuke to these ladies (Silva, Philippians, 192).
This is a serious issue for Paul. He can’t speak in vague generalities. He cuts right to it and to them. Why? Because he loves them and he loves the church.
Not much is known about these women or the cause of their strife. Women played a prominent role in the early church—as they do in every church—especially in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15). These two seem to have had an influential role, for Paul mentions how they labored with him in the cause of the gospel (4:3), but we don’t know how they exerted influence exactly. What about the cause of the rift in their relationship? Did the problem arise out of problems with leadership structure? Was it merely a preference issue? Were they guilty of envy and rivalry (2:3)? We don’t know. It doesn’t seem to be a doctrinal issue, given what Paul says about them. My guess is that the problem dealt with leadership.
The solution. While we don’t know the exact cause of the problem, we can note the process for solving the problem, provided by Paul.
First, Paul instructs the women themselves to resolve the matter by having the same mind (v. 2). He repeats his plea (“urge,” “beg,” or “entreat”) before the mention of each name. Paul isn’t taking sides. He “urges” both sisters to agree in the Lord. The best solution for resolving differences is simple: solve the problem with one another.
After his plea, Paul provides the attitude in which Euodia and Syntyche should work toward unity, with this word “agree.” This Greek phrase autos phroneo¯, which appears several times in Paul’s writings (Rom 12:16; 15:5; 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 2:2), means “to have the same mind” or literally “to think the same thing” (O’Brien, Epistle, 478; see also Carson’s discussion in Basics, 101–3). Once again the phrase is used in the context of unity. Paul is urging them to have right attitudes toward each other so that they may work together faithfully.
Such like-mindedness can only come by imitating the humility of Jesus, who gave up His rights for the good of others (2:5-11). To resolve differences, we need the attitude of Jesus. Paul points them to Jesus with the phrase “in the Lord.” It’s because of the Lord’s power, because of their commonality in the Lord, and because they are willing to submit to the Lord, that they can agree in the Lord. Both ladies are called to bow before the lordship of Jesus and to put on His mind, that they may resolve their differences.
Agreement like this doesn’t mean that you throw out basic, sound doctrine; that’s not what Paul has in mind. Nor does he tell them to agree on absolutely everything, including their preferences. Paul is encouraging a common attitude of Christ and gospel-centeredness. If the ladies can center on the gospel and pursue the attitude of Christ, they will be able to go on with the work. Philippians 2:1-11 really seems to be in view here; it’s an amazing, helpful text when thinking about resolving differences. These two ladies are living examples of how that text can work.
Second, Paul calls for intervention (v. 3a). Paul alerts the whole church to the problem and urges one called a “true partner” to “help these women.” We don’t know who this person is (unless the Greek word for partner, syzygus, is his actual name), but Paul and the church do know him, and he urges this servant to play the peacemaker. These ladies may have begun already to work out their differences, and Paul is now calling on this servant to help them resolve things completely (see O’Brien, Epistle, 481).
In asking for help, Paul reminds us of the importance of the church family assisting in the reconciliation process. Kent Hughes says, “The apostle didn’t lay out a precise remedy for Euodia and Syntyche but handed it over to the church family in Philippi. He gave them tender guidelines and was diplomatic and encouraging” (Philippians, 164). As members of the church, we must eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit (v. 3). Don’t let your fear of “meddling” keep you from seeking to reconcile people. There’s a difference between meddling and seeking to do gospel-centered reconciliation.
Further, if you, as a believer, are acting wrongfully toward your brother or sister, you shouldn’t think, It’s none of anyone’s business. It is the church’s business because you’re a part of the body and your sin affects the whole body. Paul has no problem alerting the church to the problem and asking for someone to help mediate (cf. 1 Cor 6:1-8). Why? Again, it’s because he loves the church, and he wants the church to be healthy and to flourish.
Third, Paul reminds everyone why these two sisters should be reconciled (v. 3b). The reason is simple: the gospel. Here we see a wonderful pattern for a peacemaker to follow. Paul commends as he corrects; he affirms as he admonishes; he reminds as he rebukes. Paul believes they’re genuine sisters. He can confidently say their “names are in the book of life” (cf. Luke 10:20; Heb 12:23). The church on earth should reflect the church in heaven. How sad is it when two genuine believers can’t resolve nondoctrinal issues! He also believes that they’re genuine servants. He says they have “contended for the gospel” at Paul’s side, along with many faithful co-laborers like Clement and others whom he doesn’t name. Not only were their names in the book of life, but they together also told others about how to live among God’s people—through faithful gospel mission. Yet they’re divided, and because such disagreement shouldn’t exist between fellow sisters and fellow servants, Paul says, “Agree in the Lord.”
Let me ask you three application questions. First, Do you see yourself as a threat to the unity of your church? You should! So should I! Here are two wonderful servants of Jesus who are at odds with each other. Every member can be a threat to unity. That should sober us and make us want to apply Philippians 2:1-11 to all of our relationships.
Next, Will you ask for help when you have a conflict? How fortunate we are to have the church, filled with co-laborers, as in Philippi, who can apply the gospel to our lives. Call a small group leader, a wise Christian friend, or a pastor to help you when necessary.
Finally, Are you prepared to give help? While not everyone will be a Paul Tripp, everyone can counsel with Scripture and prayer. Based on this text, I think you have a good plan! If two people are at odds, begin with Philippians 4:2 and say, “Agree in the Lord.” Explain what this means. Then you may have them read Philippians 2:1-11 aloud. Unpack that passage a bit for them. Then perhaps you could have them leave for a day or so, meditate on this particular passage, and see if they might be able to come back and agree to pursue like-mindedness with each other. See if they might humble themselves, as Jesus humbled Himself, and unite in the gospel.
We often say at Imago Dei Church that we encourage “awkward conversations” to take place. If you’re going to have a real relationship with others, you will have conflicts. So plan on having these “Euodia-and-Syntyche conversations” for the good of the church and for the glory of Christ. Seek to submit to the lordship of Christ, to put on the mind of Christ, and to deal with the issue. If you can’t resolve it, then ask for someone to help you do it.
All of this requires grace-filled humility. Division in the body like this not only damages the health of the church but also affects our witness to the world. No one wants to join a group of people who don’t like one another! Further, disunity keeps us from exercising forward energy in the mission. Petty differences demand sideways energy; they occupy far too much time—time that individuals could be using to spread the gospel.
Another common Christian struggle is maintaining a joyful heart.
The need. Paul once again finds it necessary to issue this command to “rejoice.” He obviously thought these Christians in Philippi needed to hear it. Can exemplary Christians like the Philippians struggle to maintain joy? Yes! Why did George Mueller say, “The first great and primary business . . . every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord”? Because we don’t always wake up ready to sing. When you read Christian biographies, you’ll actually be encouraged that some of our greatest heroes wrestled through seasons of dryness, despair, and discouragement.
The causes. Many things can rob us of joy. One of them is mentioned in verse 6—anxiety! But doubt, loss of a loved one, work, illness, relational difficulties, and numerous other problems can cause Christians to lose their song.
The solution. Notice what Paul says about rejoicing. He doesn’t say, “Rejoice when your circumstances are going well.” He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (emphasis added). Joy comes from our relationship with Jesus, not our circumstances. Paul isn’t writing this letter from a sweet beach house. He’s writing in prison. Surely some of the Philippians remembered when he and Silas sang hymns in prison despite being beaten and bruised. How then can he say this? Where did Paul’s joy come from? It came from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Most people think you get joy when you get what you desire. But real joy comes when you realize what you deserve. The realization of what you deserve (judgment) and what you’ve received instead (salvation) should lead you to great joy. It’s not about getting what you want; it’s about being grateful for all that you have in Christ Jesus.
Recently Pharrell Williams’s catchy song titled “Happy” made people “clap along” and sing and dance all over the world. For months it was the number one song in the land. You could see people sing it on talk shows, at sporting events, in public streets, and in countless other contexts. It first appeared as a single for the movie Despicable Me 2. Interestingly, the song plays when Lucy gives Gru (the former super-villain) a kiss. When the formerly despicable guy finds love, it makes him happy. That sounds like the gospel! When formerly despicable characters are seized and changed by the love of Jesus, it should make them happy. In Philippians the happiest man in Rome is in jail! What makes him rejoice? The good news of Christ rescuing him makes him rejoice. When we consider what we deserve because of our despicable sin and what we have because of the redeeming love of God through Christ, that realization should give rise to joy. When you ponder how the Savior has lifted you out of the miry pit, it should give you “a new song,” as David says (e.g., Ps 40:1-3). Rejoice in the Lord—in the Savior and Lord, who loves to redeem and forgive despicable people.
Instruction. So when and how long should we rejoice in the Lord? Paul tells us: “always.” Carson notes this is a command, not good advice (Basics, 106). We’re commanded to rejoice. Certainly there will be occasions when we’re grieved and filled with sorrow, but even in those times the Christian can say with Paul, “as grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). Paul doesn’t teach that we should always be skipping around, totally detached from the real world. He teaches that even in hard times the Christian can drink deeply from the well of salvation that produces joy in the midst of struggle. You should always sing with joy because of the Savior, even in times when you have to sing with tears pouring down your face.
Effect. What would happen if you and others in your church lived lives of constant rejoicing? Think of all the sins that are overcome by a heart that rejoices in the Lord always. Would this practice not conquer sins like envy, gossip, stinginess, arrogance, discontentment, and complaining? These sins grow out of a heart that’s not finding joy in Christ. Further, when we rejoice in the Lord while we serve the Lord, we honor Him. Our attitudes as we serve the Lord matter to Him. So, let’s regularly reflect on how graciously the Lord has treated us, and may that lead us to live a life of joy.
The first part of Paul’s next exhortation is translated in various ways:
- “Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (HCSB).
- “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (ESV).
- “Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon” (NLT).
- “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near” (NASB).
- “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (NIV).
Scholars tell us that this Greek word for “reasonableness” (ESV), “graciousness” (HCSB), or “gentleness” (NIV) isn’t easy to translate. Having a “gentle forbearance with others” gets at the idea (Fee, Pauline Christology, 406). It’s the opposite of being contentious and self-seeking (Carson, Basics, 106).
This spirit of graciousness was evident in Jesus’ life and ministry (2 Cor 10:1), including His attitude toward those who reviled and crushed Him (1 Pet 2:23). In the Pastoral Epistles Paul says this is a qualification of a pastor (1 Tim 3:3). Here Paul says that believers should display this gracious, gentle spirit with one another and with the watching world. We need this spirit when we seek to reconcile with other people. We need a gracious, forbearing spirit. We need a willingness to give up our preferences and show grace to others. This call for graciousness is also important as we engage this world with biblical truth. It’s especially important when speaking on the most volatile issues in the culture right now, namely, homosexuality and gay marriage. Nothing creates more criticism and outrage these days than teaching, or even saying, that there has been a historical position on marriage—one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage. As we take our stand on such issues, we need courage, but that courage must also be mingled with graciousness.
Is your graciousness evident to your friends, family, neighbors, and fellow church members? Maybe a better question is, Do you even desire this character quality? What do you want to be known for—fame, success, beauty? May we all aspire to have a reputation, as individuals and as a church, for being gracious and gentle in our dealings with both those inside and those outside the church.
Paul then adds, “The Lord is near.” There’s division over how this should be received. Is it temporal or spatial? That is, is Paul referring to the Lord’s return (“soon,” temporal), or to the Lord’s presence (“close,” spatial)? If he’s speaking of the Lord’s return, then perhaps he’s saying something like, “Jesus is returning, so live appropriately. Do you want Him to return and find you being harsh and self-promoting?”
But if he’s referring to the Lord’s presence, he may just be calling their attention to the fact that God is close to the Philippians and He’s ready to assist them in their pursuit of Christlikeness. His nearness should certainly inspire one to pray, as the next verse commands. This idea of God’s presence supplying sweet assurance to the believer can be found throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, and Paul may be echoing the psalmists. We read passages like, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted” (Ps 34:18).
Both interpretations—temporal and spatial views—are theologically correct, and Paul may have both in mind (O’Brien, Epistle, 489). Christ’s return should cause us to live differently in the present, and Christ’s closeness should encourage us and cause us to call on Him for blessing and help in the areas of resolving differences, rejoicing, being gentle, and overcoming anxiety.
If the first three issues didn’t provoke you, surely number four will! The writer of Proverbs says, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down” (Prov 12:25). Anxiety is like carrying a huge pack for miles. We can all identify with this and affirm its truth, but perhaps deep down we don’t want to believe Philippians 4:6-7. Can you really relieve your anxiety through prayer and experience God’s unspeakable peace? Yes, you can. Let’s look closely at what Paul says about this common problem and his solution. Paul’s teaching here is not only consistent with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6:25-34, but it also sounds very similar to it. One can hear an echo from the Shepherd Himself.
What is worry/anxiety? We worry when we imagine the future in a terrible way. John Piper says, “Anxiety seems to be an intense desire for something, accompanied by a fear of the consequences of not receiving it” (“Is There Good Anxiety?”). This desire normally involves something we really value, like money or relationships. Worry involves imagining the future in a worst-case scenario and then freaking out about it. We can freak out about how we think our kids will turn out, how we will pay the rent next year, who we will marry, and so on.
To be clear, there’s a difference between what we might call “alarm” and “worry.” Things that alarm us may be helpful. We even call our clocks “alarm clocks.” These are good inventions because they wake people up. I do wish they had a different name, like “daily-resurrection-practice clocks” or “opportunity clocks,” but it is, nevertheless, a positive invention. Sometimes alarms in our minds will go off, telling us to take out the trash, make a phone call, or go talk to a person in need. One may call this “good anxiety” or a “good burden.”
Paul mentions having “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28 ESV) as a desirable trait. What did he mean by anxiety for churches? Paul meant that he cared; he was concerned for their spiritual future. We, too, should have a burden for people’s souls (cf. Rom 9:1-3). Remember also that Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was a man of sorrow, but He never sinned by worrying and taught that we shouldn’t worry. So the problem of anxiety doesn’t mean we live unconcerned, dispassionate lives. Indeed, some worry is positive. This good anxiety calls us to perform our responsibilities.
Negative worry is different. I remember hearing a John Ortberg sermon in which he described worry as carrying around an alarm clock all day! Can you imagine what kind of day that would be? Maybe you live like that. Do you live with self-defeating, persistent thoughts filled with worry? This type of anxiety, which Jesus and Paul talk about, is sin. This form of worry is pagan; it could be called “functional atheism” because you’re living as though God doesn’t exist, as if He’s not the all-sovereign ruler over all.
This line of thinking leads us to how one can live with a good form of anxiety and avoid sinful anxiety—you have to broaden your vision. You have to step back and observe the big picture, as Paul did (cf. Rom 8:28), and realize that no anxiety should immobilize us and squeeze the joy out of us, because we have an eternal perspective of God’s goodness (Piper, “Is There Good Anxiety?”). Crushing anxiety happens when I believe lies. You might think of your worries as false prophets. They’re telling you that God isn’t good, sovereign, and wise. You need to listen to another sermon. Every day the birds are preaching another one, and we should watch and listen to them.
Why were the Philippians anxious? There are many causes of anxiety, and the Philippian church faced several of them. They faced external threats. Paul tells them not to be frightened by their opponents (1:28). They were dealing with internal opposition (4:2-3). They were concerned for their beloved missionary-church planter, Paul (4:10), as well as their representative, Epaphroditus (2:26). They also may have been a bit worried about God’s provision, so Paul reassures them of God’s providence (4:19). We can surely identify with these causes, right?
Is some external threat causing you to be anxious? Is there conflict within your church that’s creating anxiety? Do you have a concern for someone that’s creating anxiety? Are you worried about wealth and provisions? There may be a number of other causes such as noise, traffic, isolation, interruptions, family crises, envy, and loneliness. There are many threats to peace.
What does anxiety do to you? Anxiety is a joy killer. Anxiety will also make you self-absorbed. When you’re consumed with your worries, you will be less likely to serve others wholeheartedly. Worry distracts you and keeps you from mission. It also robs you of peace, which Paul says will fill the hearts of praying believers. All of these results are spiritual issues. There may also be physical results that display the signs of anxiety. Here are just a handful of them: unusual mood swings, irritability, anger, sweating, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, exhaustion, nervous twitching, decreased concentration and memory, nausea, shortness of breath, hair loss, weight gain or loss, panic, indecisiveness, canker sores, muscle tension, insomnia, self-medicating, high blood pressure, eating comfort foods, and reckless driving.
What should we do about anxiety? Here’s the real question for us, right? We may be given many recommendations, including acupuncture, whiskey, exercise, aromatherapy, yoga, medicines, and deep breathing. While God blesses us with many evidences of His common grace through some of these means, we should start with what He’s said to us about the issue specifically in His Word. We need God’s Word to know God’s peace. Since Paul is echoing the words of Jesus, let’s go back and briefly highlight the Good Shepherd’s instructions and allow His teaching to minister to our anxious hearts. Moisés Silva says, “That the apostle is here reflecting, or even directly alluding to, Jesus’ teaching seems very likely indeed” (Philippians, 195). Jesus says,
This is why I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying? And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these! If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt 6:25-34; emphasis added)
This passage comes immediately after Jesus’ teaching on treasures and money in the previous paragraphs. Notice “This is why” in verse 25; it seems that this particular cause of anxiety is on our Lord’s mind. In this amazing passage where Jesus tells us three times, “Don’t worry” (Matt 6:25,31,34), He then gives five reasons why we shouldn’t be consumed with anxiety.
The Good Shepherd tells us that God provides for birds and flowers; He will surely provide for us (Matt 6:26,28-30). Here we have two illustrations. God feeds the birds and clothes the wildflowers. I (Tony) love to sit outside of my house and watch the birds eat and the flowers blossom. Every day a sermon is being preached, saying, God provides; God sustains. I find it easy to pray outside. The universe is not a clock running by itself. God didn’t wind up the universe and say, “Go for it.” No, God provides for His creation, as many of the psalms point out (e.g., Ps 104). The point is clear: If you’re more valuable than birds, you’ll be okay. Relax in His promises.
Martin Luther once described his favorite preacher, a bird:
I have one preacher that I love better than any other. It is my little tame robin, who preaches to me daily. I put his crumbs upon my windowsill, especially at night. He hops onto the sill when he wants his supply, and takes as much as he desires to satisfy his need. From there he always hops to a little tree close by, and lifts up his voice to God, and sings his carol of praise and gratitude, tucks his little head under his wings, and goes fast to sleep, to leave tomorrow to look after itself. He is the best preacher I have on earth. (Tan, Encyclopedia, 1,649–50)
Let the birds preach a better sermon to you. God feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you. God clothes the wildflowers, which are temporary; He will provide for you who are eternal (Matt 6:28).
The Good Shepherd also tells us that worrying is pointless (Matt 6:27,34). This is the pragmatic side of worry. It’s worthless. You can’t add any more days to your life, and you can’t control tomorrow. Your worries aren’t helping; rather, they’re adding to the problems.
Next, the Good Shepherd tells us that worrying is a pagan practice, not a disciple’s practice (Matt 6:31-32). He says that “the Gentiles seek after all these things” (ESV). We should be seeking something else, namely, the kingdom, not being overwhelmed with worldly things. Your name is in heaven’s book. Rest in God’s grace, and stop freaking out like one who doesn’t know God.
Finally, the Good Shepherd tells us that God will provide everything we need when we seek His kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6:33). Jesus doesn’t promise a drama-free life. He tells us elsewhere that we may have to give our lives for the kingdom. But He will give us what we need as we seek His kingdom. In Luke He says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 ESV). We can sell our possessions, store up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:33-34), and pour ourselves into mission (Luke 12:4-12) with confident trust that God provides for His flock as they seek His kingdom. What are you seeking first? Are you seeking the kingdom?
Accept the truth that you shouldn’t have a heart filled with pagan anxiety (v. 6). Paul simply says, “Don’t worry about anything.” It shouldn’t be part of our lives. He’s merely echoing Jesus’ three-time exhortation in Matthew 6. Do you understand this? You shouldn’t worry in a sinful way any more than you should gossip, envy, covet, or commit sexual sin. The first step to tackling this sin is realizing it’s not an acceptable habit or personality trait. It’s sin, and this is a commandment: “Do not be anxious” (ESV).
Cast all of your cares on God who cares for you (vv. 6-7). The first and most basic remedy for anxiety is prayer. Paul says that peace comes only through prayer. He says to relieve your anxiety in this way: “In everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Don’t worry about anything; pray about everything. This is a commandment. So pray, and know God’s peace! Luther quipped, “Pray and let God worry.” D. A. Carson says, “I have yet to meet a chronic worrier who enjoys an excellent prayer life” (Basics, 112). Here’s the antidote to anxiety. This is basic Christianity, but how are you doing in this discipline of unhurried, unhindered time with God? Do you know the peace that comes from being in God’s presence (see Ps 91:1-2)?
Paul says we should pray with thanksgiving and intercession. Paul isn’t denying that we will have hard times; instead, he understands that in those hard times we can offer up the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Hard times can serve as occasions to offer our requests to God. Remember from where Paul is writing this! We can be thankful as we reflect on the manifold mercies of God, even in a prison. We should also offer up our petitions to God when in need. We should ask and keep on asking, as Jesus instructed us, because our Father loves to give good gifts to His children (Matt 7:7-11). You can seek Him about any care you have, from needing daily bread to going overseas on mission.
Peter says that we should cast all of our cares on God because He cares for us (1 Pet 5:7), which is an echo of Ps 55:22, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.” I liken this to the great game of bowling. Have you ever watched the bowler after he or she releases the ball? It’s often quite humorous. I (Tony) grew up in a bowling alley (my dad was a “commissioner”), and I’ve seen all sorts of things. People contort their bodies after they roll a ball down the lane, hoping that a side lean will somehow affect where the ball goes. Some talk to the ball. Others tip toe, leap, or slide to the side, hoping that the ball will land in the pocket. The fact is, once you let go of the ball, nothing you do will change the course of the ball! Just let the ball go. Do this with your burdens as well; release them to God. Don’t release a burden and then worry about it. Cast your burden on the Lord; He will sustain you. Let God deal with it.
The psalmist says many need to trust God and go to sleep at night. He says, “In vain you get up early and stay up late, working hard to have enough food—yes, He gives sleep to the one He loves” (Ps 127:2). God never worries. God is in control. God loves His people and tells them to go to sleep at night. May God grant us grace to enjoy the peace that comes from casting our cares on Him.
Fight anxiety with faith in God’s promises (4:5-7,19). I get this idea from a few places in Philippians 4. The next verse is one of these promises, “And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). Paul doesn’t say that prayer will keep us from having problems; rather, once we pray and give our burden to God, we can have peace in the midst of the problem. He says that we can be garrisoned by the peace of God. Like a Roman soldier standing watch over a building, so the peace of God will guard our hearts when anxious thoughts and fears arise. Paul adds that this peace “surpasses every thought,” which sounds a bit like Ephesians 3, speaking of God’s ability “to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20). One reason God’s peace is so extraordinary is that you can have it when it doesn’t make sense to have it! Why should you have peace when you’re in a Roman prison? It doesn’t make sense unless God’s peace really does flood your soul through prayer. And it does. This peace transcends understanding.
So while medicine, a massage, and other practices have their place, they will never give you this type of peace because this peace only comes from God. How do you get it? You have to know the Prince of Peace. It’s only through a relationship with Jesus that you can know what Paul’s talking about. But if you are a Christian, then fight your anxiety with God’s promise of peace. He promises to give you unexplainable peace when you pray. So believe this promise!
There are other encouraging truths, promises, and applications in chapter 4 in which we can rest. We find that the Lord is near us (v. 5). Fight your anxiety by believing that He is with you and that the Lord Jesus will return for you. Paul mentions “thanksgiving” in 4:6. How can we live thankfully all the time? One cause for thanksgiving is the fact that God keeps His promise, and as we look across the page, we find this sweet assurance: “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (v. 19). Believe that promise.
We grow anxious when we fail to remember God’s promises. So take God at His Word. Believe that He gives His peace to those who seek His presence. Believe that He will provide for His children. Fight fear with God’s promises. Understand that this isn’t prosperity theology. Paul is in prison. Many of the Philippians are poor (2 Cor 8:2). God’s promises aren’t material possessions and earthly treasures, but something much deeper, much more important, and much greater, namely, God’s peace, God’s presence, and God’s provisions to do kingdom work. Seek first the kingdom, and trust Him.
The final issue that Paul addresses is the Christian’s thought life. For Christians to grow in likeness to Jesus, we have to have a renewed mind (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 4:23). God has blessed His church with His Word as a primary means of purifying our minds. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). David prayed for God to examine his thoughts, saying, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps 139:23-24). David knew that real change involves a change of one’s thoughts. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gets at the thoughts behind adultery and murder, calling attention to the sinfulness of lustful thoughts and malicious thoughts (Matt 5:21-22,27-30). What we think matters, and it matters more than we think. We need God’s Word to saturate our minds that we may be renewed and kept from offensive ways.
In addition to this Paul highlights the need to think on admirable things. Think about what’s true, not false. Think about what’s honorable, not dishonorable. Think about what’s just, not unjust. Think about what’s pure, not impure. Think about what’s lovely, not repulsive. Think about what’s commendable, not wrong. Think about what’s morally excellent, not filthy. Think about what’s admirable, not shameful (Carson, Basics, 116). Paul’s verb, logizomai, means to “take into account carefully” or to “calculate” (Witherington, Friendship and Finances, 117). We are to dwell, think, ponder, consider carefully, and reflect on virtuous things in this life.
Paul’s virtuous things may appear in various places in the culture. God is the Creator and Giver of all good gifts, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find many praiseworthy qualities in our world. What we must do is sift things through the grid of Scripture. This text doesn’t give us a license to be “worldly” or to determine our own morality, but it does encourage us to ponder things that the God of the Bible finds worthy of our thoughts. We must seek to take “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Surrender your thought life to Jesus, and don’t allow it to drift into the gutter. One may find such traces of admirable qualities in the arena of agriculture, in the plant and animal kingdoms, in the arts, in music, in the military, among parents, in children, and in sports. Think biblically and in a Christ-centered, Christ-exalting way about these and other things in our world.
In addition to thinking praiseworthy thoughts, Paul also mentions following godly examples. He writes, “Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (v. 9). Once again the theme of imitation appears, and so does the theme of peace. Emulate leaders who think holy thoughts. Emulate leaders who set their minds on their Creator and Redeemer. Watch them. Watch how they view creation, what they read, what they talk about, what they value. As a result, Paul says, the follower will know more of God’s peace. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “You will keep the mind that is dependent on You in perfect peace, for it is trusting in You” (Isa 26:3). How true this is. Set your mind on praiseworthy things, give your burdens to God, and know the perfect peace of God.
To conclude, Paul shepherds the church lovingly, wisely, and faithfully, urging them to be united, to rejoice in the Lord, to be gentle, to replace anxiety with God’s peace through prayer, and to think on praiseworthy things. As we meditate on these things, we should remember the hope we have in Christ. Jesus never broke these commands, and He solved all these problems. Christ is the reconciler, the gentle Savior. His gift of salvation gives us cause to rejoice. He removed our greatest fear and relieves our deepest anxiety through His victorious death and resurrection. He paid the penalty for those who sinned with their thoughts, and He grants them a new mind in turn. Look to the Savior for your righteousness and for daily renewal, and go imitate Him. As you do, the peace of God will be with you.
Reflect and Discuss
- What was Paul’s solution to the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche?
- Why is division in the body of Christ so dangerous?
- How might you encourage unity rather than division?
- Why are “awkward conversations” sometimes necessary to have with others?
- What would happen if you and others in your church lived lives of constant rejoicing?
- What does Paul mean by “The Lord is near” (4:5)?
- What does anxiety do to you? How does it affect others around you?
- What are the three things Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7 about dealing with anxiety?
- What does Paul mean when he says to think about admirable things? How do you do this?
- How are you doing in the discipline of spending unhurried, unhindered time with God? Do you know the peace that comes from being in God’s presence?