Think on Good Things: A Study of Philippians 4

As Paul nears the end of his friendly letter to the church in Philippi, he encourages his readers to focus on the positive, and he closes with thanks and praise that can encourage us.

A plea for peace

Verse 1: "Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!" As he explained in chapter 3, we cannot trust in our imperfect performance — we must trust in Christ and in the transformation that he will bring us when he returns (3:21). By keeping a clear focus on Christ, we can stand firm until the end.

As he exhorts them, Paul reveals how much he likes these people who have helped him: he loves them and longs for them. They give him joy and honor, and he can appeal to them as friends.

Paul then turns to a specific problem within the Philippian church, mentioning two women by name: "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord" (4:2). The disagreement between these Christians was apparently not a private matter, but had caused problems within the congregation. Paul does not cast blame and does not give orders, but treats them both the same.

Paul then asks someone to help: "Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life" (v. 3).

Paul not only pleads — he praises. These women had been a big help in Paul’s evangelistic team, but good gospel workers can have weaknesses in other areas, and these two needed some help in patching up their differences. So Paul calls on an unnamed but faithful friend to be a mediator. After all, these women are in the book of life and will live forever with each other, so they ought to try to get along now.

Peace and joy

Paul then goes back to a persistent theme in this letter: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (v. 4). But it’s hard to rejoice when we have persecution and personal disagreements. Nevertheless, we are to rejoice, for we are in the Lord. We have much to be happy about: a salvation that no one can take away from us.

"Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near," Paul exhorts. This is good advice for anyone, anytime, whether in a time of persecution or a personal squabble. Gentleness is better than retaliation.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (v. 6). We are encouraged to pray about everything that concerns us, confident that God will take care of our needs. Rather than worrying or fighting back, we can be thankful, even in times of trial. Paul is helping the Philippians to concentrate on the positive.

"And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 7). With confident prayer, we can have inner peace. Although circumstances around us may be in turmoil, we can have a peace that by normal standards doesn’t make sense. But our faith is in Christ, not the circumstances of this world.

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things" (v. 8). If you want inner peace and interpersonal peace, then think on good things. Love looks for good things, not bad (1 Cor. 13:5-6). If you have a problem with someone, look for whatever is true and good and praiseworthy. Give your problems to God, and you will find peace.

"Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:9). Paul again appeals to his own example among the Philippians. He tried to live the gospel as well as to share it, and he encourages the readers to do the same.

A thank-you note

Paul then thanks the church for the help they sent him while he was in prison: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it" (v. 10). Although Paul is thankful for the physical help they gave, he also uses this opportunity to point the readers away from the physical, toward faith in Christ:

"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (vv. 11-13).

Paul had times of plenty, and times of poverty. In both cases, he looked to the Lord, not to his physical circumstances. He was content even when in poverty, because he looked to Christ. Christ did not give him strength to break out of jail, but to stay in jail. Christ did not give him the ability to turn stones into bread, but to endure hunger. This is the kind of strength Christ gives — perhaps not the kind we want, but the kind we need most.

Verse 13 is sometimes lifted out of context to say that Christ enables us to do anything we want, such as to succeed in business. But this is not what Paul meant. Rather, Christ enables us to endure all circumstances. The new revision of the NIV makes it clear that we need to consider the context: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength."

Paul does not preach in order to get a salary, and he is not dependent on anyone. But Paul praises them for the help that they gave, because it reflects a spiritual virtue within them. "Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need" (vv. 14-16).

When Paul was ministering in Corinth, for example, he received financial help from Philippi (2 Cor. 8:1-2) rather than being supported by the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:7-14). Although the church at Philippi was poor, and some of the Corinthians were wealthy, the Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work. And in Thessalonica, too, they continued to help him.

Paul appreciates this not so much for his own benefit, but because it is a spiritual value for the Philippians. "Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account" (Phil. 4:17). Frank Thielman says, "The imagery is of a bank account that receives compounded interest" (Philippians, p. 237). God will reward them for the good that they have done, and Paul was eager for them to be blessed as a reflection of their generosity. When we serve God in physical ways, we benefit spiritually as God is working in us.

"I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God" (v. 18). This financial help is more than enough for me, he says, and then he points out its spiritual significance: It is a sacrifice that pleases God. We worship God in our offerings, whether they are given to the poor or to missionary workers.

And in return, "my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (v. 19). The reason that we can be generous is because God will supply everything we need, including the strength to endure difficulties.

Closing comments

Paul ends his letter with a traditional doxology, praising God: "To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (v. 20).

Then, as a customary postscript, he adds a few personal greetings: "Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household" (vv. 21-22).

Who are these people from Caesar’s household? We do not know — they may have been part of Caesar’s staff that worked in various parts of the empire. Paul mentions them here perhaps to drop a hint that the gospel is bearing fruit in significant places.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen" (v. 23).

Questions for application

  • Would I want my name to be in a public letter, with an apostle asking me to quit arguing with another member? (v. 2)

  • Am I willing to give all my anxieties to God in prayer? (v. 6) Am I willing to be thankful even in difficult times?

  • How well do I concentrate on the praiseworthy, rather than the things that irritate me? (v. 8)

  • Poor people are more likely to be Christians than wealthy people are. Do I find it easier to trust in God when I am poor, or does wealth tempt me to trust in my money? (v. 12)

  • What kind of strength is Christ giving me in my circumstances? (v. 13)

  • Do I view my offerings as a form of worship, or as payment for services that I want to benefit from? (v. 19).

  • How often do I greet saints in other cities? (v. 22)

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