A study of Philippians 4:4-7
(4) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!
(5) Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
(6) Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
(7) And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Did you know that God is on guard duty over you? Can you imagine what that must mean? What enemy can possibly catch Him by surprise or overwhelm Him with an attack? This is even better than assigning angels to your protection. God Himself is acting as sentinel.
There are a few things we need to understand in order to enjoy God’s watchful protection. Paul gives us the requirements in a short paragraph in his letter to the Philippians. By looking carefully at this passage, we will discover that God’s guard duty extends to quite a bit more than standing watch in the night.
Verse 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!
Paul introduces the topic with a spectacular claim. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice.” Since Paul is writing from prison, this announcement is amazing. If Paul can rejoice in the midst of a first century prison cell, how much easier should it be for us to reiterate his shout of praise? But we seem to falter and stumble. Too often life seems to overwhelm us. Instead of rejoicing, we cower under the pressure or we bemoan our fate. In order to see the application on God’s guardianship, we need to know something about this first imperative – rejoice!
Rejoice is the Greek word chairete. The root word is chairo. This is the basis of our English word charity. The word group is translated in many different ways including joy, to be glad, rejoice, to be merry, to give freely, grace, gratitude and thanksgiving. But the English translations do not always draw out the deepest meanings. For that, we must probe the cultural basis of the word.
Greek culture considered joy to be the final product of the fully actualized man. As such, it was a reflection of the divine spark found within the human soul. For the Greeks, joy was a deep expression of pleasure bound closely to the relief of cares in this life. The hope of joy was so engrained in the aspiration of the culture that it was used as a common morning greeting, much the way that we might say, “Have a good day” and mean to pass some unspecified benefit to the one we greet. Joy was the description of an inner satisfaction with life, desired by all, realized by few. But reality invades every life and even those who experienced joy knew that it was merely a temporary and fleeting feeling. Death swallows all pleasures in its grim smile.
Paul was not Greek. And it’s a very good thing that he wasn’t. Paul wrote in Greek because he wished to communicate in a language that everyone could understand (much to our present day regret). But Paul thought in Hebrew and what he communicated were Hebrew insights into reality. The Hebrew worldview began from a very different point than the Greeks. Greek life was tied to an anthropomorphic center. Man was the measure of all things. That meant that the limits of my world were the limits of the reach of Man. My horizons extended only as far as my reason, my hopes and my achievements. Today, much of our world is still tied to this center. “Life is what you make of it,” goes the saying and most of us believe it to be true.
But the Hebrew world never began with Man. It began with God. “In the beginning, God” is the hallmark of all Hebrew thinking. Man is only a part of the play that God is casting, producing and directing. This change of view alters every concept that concerns Man, from reason to emotion, from will to wish. Under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty, joy is no longer an expression of the inner divinity of Man released from an oppressive reality. Joy is an outward expression and experience of fellowship shared with God. Joy is never individual and private. It is communal and public. It is found only in relationship, principally with God and secondarily but necessarily with others in His household. Joy is not escape from this world. It is celebration within this world as it is.
Paul not only validates this view of life, he commands it. Why? Because “Life is in the Son.” Paul peeled back the veil of this reality and revealed the hidden things of this world. Those things show us that there is no life at all unless God gives it. There is no money, no job, no status, no possessions, no family, no friends, no government or community unless God gives it. And the wonder of it all is that God does give. We are not left destitute and bankrupt and miserable. We are alive. Life is given to us along with the promise that real life will far surpasses what this world offers. Our boundaries are not set on the limits of our human imagination or aspiration. The limits of Life are set on God.
Rejoice! God gives.
Now we see why Paul is able to rejoice in the midst of tragedy and trial. Joy has nothing to do with the circumstances of life. Joy is not about my inner feelings of satisfaction or my release from cares. Joy is about God’s grace in community. It is about fellowship with Him. This radical alteration reconstructs the fabric of life so that it is no longer paradoxical to say that we have joy in suffering. Unjust suffering is participation in the life of God’s Son, a sharing in the same process that He endured in order to secure the relationship of fellowship that makes joy possible. It is the paramount expression of standing in the place of grace because grace is the costly experience of denying the reality of this world and affirming the truth of God’s world.
Because joy is independent of circumstances, joy is a concrete expression of freedom. It is not the stoic resignation to life’s fetters. It is the celebration of God’s expected promise realized in the present. Joy is the true manifestation of the Greek aspiration of release from cares, not because it resolves life’s trials in some immaculate bliss but because joy focuses our attention on the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promise. It actually frees us from the constrictions of this world by transporting us to the hidden reality of God in this world and the to-be-revealed reality of God’s coming kingdom. What man can be a prisoner here when he has already been granted freedom under God’s sovereign reign?
In this sense, the Hebrew thought of joy interpreted through the event of Christ is the final fulfillment of what the Greek could only hope. Joy becomes personal because it is established as communal. Joy is delight in the relationship with God, a relationship that turns life into a gift that fulfills my longing for destiny by aligning me with my Creator.
“Rejoice,” says Paul. But he quickly adds the necessary qualifier, “in the Lord.” Joy is nothing more than the exuberance of temporary inner delight unless it is anchored in the permanence of the work of Christ. The Greeks knew only too well that the passions were only seductive promises, enticing even the most stable of men with the hope of life without strife. Only one event could make that hope a permanent reality – death. Any passion, whether love or joy, grief or pity, only led to the conclusion that life was a tapestry of unresolved and irresolvable strains. The price of true freedom was very high indeed.
Paul points to the true ground of joy, but in doing so he does not overthrow the basic Greek insight. Life is resolved only in death. The difference for Paul is not a denial of this conclusion but rather a correction of the viewpoint. Life is indeed resolved only in death. But it is resolved not in my actual physical death but in the death of God on the cross and my identification with that death. The truth is simple – there is no freedom this side of the grave. But the follower of Christ knows a different reality than the limits of the grave. He knows that Christ has overcome the world. He knows that death is no longer the limit of my existence. And knowing this, he is able to take joy from life even if it is filled with strife. This act of the play is not the end.
Paul reminds us as succinctly as possible that we are to rejoice, not in the fabric of a world fractured by human limits but rather in the bursting of the bonds through the death of the Son. When His death becomes my death, life bounded by my own limits passes away. I no longer am constrained by the human horizon. I live, but not because of my own aspiration or hope. I live because He has regenerated me into a Life without limits.
Rejoice in the Lord. There is no other ground for rejoicing. All else is fading grass. Death will swallow everything not in relationship to Him. But whatever is in that relationship, whatever has died with Him, will rise into a Life that shares community with God. Life without end, Amen.
Now we see why Paul can add, “always”. Are there any circumstances that will squelch this unfettered joy? No. Is there any strain or stress that will destroy the hope anchored in the finished victory over death? No. There is never any condition in this life that will undermine the significance of the death of Jesus on the cross. And for that reason, there is never any moment when it is not possible to rejoice. We do not take joy in the struggle or the sorrow or the grief. We take joy in the Son who has overturned each and every one of these poisoned facets of human existence. We are joyful because of His victory and because His victory guarantees ours. Paul’s “always” has nothing to do with life’s circumstances. It is the “always” that is based on divine intervention into this world.
Paul insists that we incorporate this fact into our lives. He is so adamant about this that he takes time to repeat it. “Again, I will say, rejoice!” This is no vain repetition. The Greek makes it clear that Paul wants his readers to return to this pre-eminent thought. The public display of communal rejoicing stands on the foundation of Jesus as Lord. There is no other solid basis for rejoicing. Anchor your life of the finished work of Christ and all life becomes a celebration of the handiwork of God now and in the future.
Verse 5 Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
Now that Paul has established the ground of joy, he turns to its practical application. His first comment concerns temperament.
Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men.
The passage is variously translated as “forbearing spirit”, “moderation”, “forbearance”, “gentleness” or an equivalent English term. The Greek is epieikes. This Greek word is a compound of epi (an intensifier) and eikos (meaning fair or equitable). This is not merely a peaceful or tranquil state of mind. Paul’s intensifier adds force to this word. This is calm that exhibits itself in the most trying of circumstances. Paul’s own life gives us an example – singing in the dungeons while awaiting possible execution. This is calm that reaches beyond human horizons. It is not equivalent to maintaining a tranquil emotional state while you wait for the traffic light to change or being undisturbed by an argument from your teenage child. Of course, if you have the sort of spirit that sings in a dungeon, traffic lights and teenagers will have very little affect on your demeanor.
Epieikes is that deep, resolved, spiritual calm in the face of any stressful circumstance. It is not a human quality. Human beings are quite capable of stoic resignation. This is not what Paul teaches. Human beings have the capacity for tranquil inner peace through meditation or medication. This is not Paul’s direction. Paul points first to the anchor in the work of Christ. He points first to rejoicing in the removal of human horizons. And then he directs us toward a calm and gentle lifestyle that comes only through the inner residence of the Holy Spirit. This state of being is a reflection of God’s patient forbearance toward us. “Love is patient” is a description of the fundamental attribute of God. If we really absorb Paul’s understanding of “rejoice”, we will discover that life is capable of being lived in the calm flow of God’s purposes. Jesus was never in a hurry.
Let this calm resolution of the Spirit show itself to everyone, says Paul. Actually, he uses the word gnostheto. This is the verb “to know” in the aorist, imperative, passive tense. That means it is a completed action in the past, done as a command, and done to yourself. You let it be known. Show yourself to be like this. Now this particular word for “to know” has an interesting sense. It is knowledge that is gathered from observable evidence and facts. It is incomplete and inferred. It is exactly the kind of knowledge we have when we conduct a scientific experiment or a survey. We draw conclusions from this information. This sort of knowledge is in contrast to another Greek word, eido, which means intuitive, complete knowledge – like knowing that I exist. I don’t have to gather evidence about my existence. I just know it. But Paul tells us that we need to show evidence of our Spirit-led calm inner peace so that others can observe our behavior and draw the conclusion that there is something quite unusual about our view of life.
If your actions and behavior in the face of stress and crisis does not exhibit the deep, resolved calm of the Spirit, then you have not embraced the full meaning of rejoice and you are not demonstrating the life in Christ. That does not mean you have not come to repentance. It does not mean that God has not pronounced a not-guilty verdict over your destiny. It means that you have not understood nor incorporated the truth of God’s sovereignty into the forms of your life. You need to go back to verse four and start again. Without “rejoice” there is no epieikes.
Paul concludes the fifth verse with this claim, “The Lord is near.” You will notice that the verb is in italics. This indicates that in the Greek text there is no verb. It has been added to provide English sense. Literally, Paul says, “The Lord close.” The word is eggus. It is a word that has two principal designations – one of place and the other of time. So, it can mean, “close at hand to this place” or “near in time to our present”. Context must determine the appropriate sense. Generally, scholars believe the word here refers to a spatial proximity – Christ is close beside me. How does this thought offer an extension of the previous idea that epieikes is the mark of spiritual tranquility in the midst of stress? The answer is found in the indwelling transformation of the Spirit. Human life is not characterized by gentle transcendence in tribulation. As we have seen, our usual response to these disturbances is emotional reaction or defense. We are incited by passions to react passionately. But Paul places his finger on the essential difference between a man who lives with his perspective bounded by this world and a man who lives with his perspective unbounded by God. The difference is not a shift in mental energy or a new technique of meditation or a reoriented psyche. The difference has nothing to do with human effort at all. The difference is that the Lord occupies the landscape of my view. He is near. It is His transcendent calm that floods my soul.
This point cannot be emphasized too strongly. So often we are led to believe that we must make ourselves into spiritual icons, pillars of divine presence in the world of turmoil. We are taught to pray harder, fast, give, repent more, beg or grovel in order to “get the blessing”. But this “spiritual” output is precisely what Paul rules out. This is my work, not His grace. I do not achieve a spiritual nirvana through the exercise of some Christian ritual or divine formula. I am not the one who is in charge of this.
Remember that Paul is speaking about joy. Joy is not produced by trying to work myself into a tranquil space. It is a paradox of faith that joy does not come through effort but through release. In fact, the more I attempt to manufacture my joy, the more frustrated I become. We are told to “rest” in Him, not in our own efforts even if those efforts are spiritually motivated. Paul never deviates from his fundamental conviction that Christ has already accomplished all that is needed for my peace – with God and with myself. The writer of Hebrew echoes this spiritual truth when he says:
There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. (Hebrews 4:9-10)
Jesus invites us to participate in this spiritual calm. In fact, his invitation is an announcement of his purpose.
Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
Isn’t that what we really want? Rest. When the turmoil of life presses us into tight quarters, when our vision appears to see nothing but dark clouds, what we want is pure, simple rest. Paul can say, “The Lord is near” because the Lord said, “Come to me.” Rest is possible because it is a gift. I can’t earn it. The harder I work at it, the less rest I have. Rest is the result of release. Paul says with a confidence based in actual experience that rest comes through rejoicing and rejoicing through realization of the reality of the Cross.
Rejoice. A command and a total shift in perspective. Rejoice always. This frame of mind leads directly to deep, confident calm, empowered by the presence of the Spirit. It is the gift of the Lord who stands nearby, ready to offer sanctuary in the storm.
Verse 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
If we understand the incredible impact of these first two verses, we will have no problem at all with Paul’s next exhortation:
Be anxious for nothing
Taken out of the context of rejoicing and rest, this command seems to be impossible. Life without anxiety is only a dream, and even in dreams we have stress. But now we have glimpsed a new horizon, an unbounded landscape given by God, freed from the crush of this life. Does this mean that God is a vast “fix-it” machine ready to solve every life problem? No. We are here as resident aliens, subject to the uncontrolled pressures of this world. But as resident aliens we do not belong here. Our true home is elsewhere. We take our marching orders from another world. Anxiety based on a world that fixes its limits in this life is useless and unnecessary foolishness.
Paul desperately wants us to understand the depth of spiritual calm residing in the care of God. Jesus knew it every moment of his life. Paul is anxious that we let go of anxiety. He deliberately expands the scope of God’s care by telling us, “Be anxious for nothing.” In the Greek text, the most important word is usually placed first in the sentence. What word does Paul wish to emphasize? It is not anxiety. Paul places the word “nothing” first. Literally, the sentence reads, “Not one thing be anxious about.”
This is a word of some importance. “Nothing” is a big topic is Christian thinking. Jesus work leaves nothing to be done. God created out of nothing. God’s purposes lack nothing. But there is more than one kind of “nothing” in Greek and the difference is important. The two words for “nothing” are oudeis and medeis. What is the difference? Both words are made up of the negative prefix plus the word heis. Heis means “one”, so both words mean “not one thing” or “nothing”. But these two words begin with two different prefixes for “not”. The first begins with ouk and the second with me. Ouk is the word for the strong “not”, like “never”. But me is the word for the conditional “not”, like “depending on the conditions.” Now read this little phrase with the conditional “not” and you will see that it says, “Be anxious for not a single condition or circumstance.” Paul stresses this thought by putting the word medeis first in the sentence. It literally says, “Not one condition be worrying over.”
There are things worth caring about as a Christian. They just aren’t the circumstances of our lives. It is worth caring about seeking the kingdom. It is worth caring about proclaiming the Christ. It is worth caring about loving the brothers. But life’s situations, no, they are not worth caring about. They are no more important than nothing at all.
Most of us will want to stop right here. “Wait! How can you say that? I have to live. I have to have money. I have to have food and shelter.” Yes, of course you do, and God knows all about that. But where you are placed in life is for His purposes. If your trust is in Him, there is literally not one condition, not one boundary fixed to this world that is worth worrying about.
Life often presents itself as a big pile of things to worry about. God rarely presents Himself in this “in your face” way. His ways are hidden. So, if we look at the big pile in front of us, we are inclined to think of that big pile as something. But the reality is that all of that stuff is just a pile of conditions – just lots of “what if’s” and “maybe’s” and circumstances. Paul tells us that these conditional situations of life are not one thing to be concerned about. God is hidden in each of them. Let His hands work out the conditions of life. He is more than capable. Stop worrying about the medeis and concentrate on the oudeis. There are some things that are really important. Life’s circumstances just don’t happen to be one of those things.
Once we see that the emphasis of this verse is on “not one thing”, we can move on to the action we should take in the face of “not one thing”. Paul’s word for “anxious” is merimnate. It is from the verb merimnao. It means anxiety that disrupts the tranquil state of mind and disturbs the personality. In years past, we would say, “do not fret”. This is not a word about being careful or cautious. It is a word about an emotional state that is preoccupied with concern. This is the place where we just can’t stop thinking about what might happen to us.
Jesus once commented on this state of mind. He said:
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matt. 6:34)
“Worry” is the same word. Jesus is entirely practical about this. He points out that no anxious fretting will really make any difference in life. On the practical side, you just do what you can do and then leave it alone. But the reason that Jesus can tell us that worry is futile is not just because the future is unknown to us. Jesus tells us that worry is useless because worry does not take God into account.
This statement comes at the end of Jesus’ famous discussion about seeking the kingdom of God as the highest priority of life. Jesus looks out on the hillside. He sees the flowers and the grass and the birds. Then he gives his followers an object lesson. “See all those tiny things living peacefully in the place God has provided for them. Don’t you think that God cares about you at least as much? No, God cares for you so much more and He doesn’t forget about these living things for a moment. Clearly, He won’t forget about you either”.
Worry is not only debilitating, it is evil. Why? Because worry is listening to Satan whispering ever so quietly, “God has forgotten you. He really doesn’t care about you. He’s too busy. Or maybe He thinks you need to be punished. Remember those terrible things you did. Well, God is going to get even with you now. You can’t count on Him. It’s too late”. Have you ever heard these words? I have. Just yesterday I felt this voice questioning my trust in God. “You’re being a fool. God isn’t going to take care of you. Look at your life. Everything is slipping away”.
Jesus says to me, “Are you going to trust me?” That’s when I need some history. I look back and see God’s faithfulness through centuries. Then I look at the grass under my feet. Every blade is His. He tends to it all. Yes, God has not forgotten me. He is faithful even when I cannot see what is happening.
but in everything
Paul continues. “But in everything.” The word he uses for “but” is alla. It is the strongest word used to show contrast. Paul wants us to see that the difference between “being anxious” and “making requests” is the difference between night and day. This is not just a little change. It is a life altering, mind-boggling total shift. One way of thinking is completely opposite of the other way.
We have plenty of experience with the way of anxiety. It is the road of burdens and cares. It is the freeway of frustration. Every exit is closed and we just can’t get off. But Paul jumps in with a new roadmap. STOP RIGHT NOW. Who cares about all the rest of that traffic screaming by in reckless pursuit of fruitless possessions? STOP THE CAR AND JUST GET OUT! Right in the middle of it all. Just leave those things behind. Walk away. You were going nowhere in a hurry. Make a total and radical shift in direction.
“But in everything.” Alla has the same force as true repentance – an about face that leaves the old way behind and walks in a different direction. Notice immediately that Paul does not say, “But for everything.” He is no stoic. He tells us that the Lord is near in every circumstance. Therefore, we are able to let go of worry no matter what the situation. We are not asked to passively endure. We are not told to be thankful for heartache, trials or tragedy. We are instructed to turn our direction to Him in all of those circumstances that would otherwise send us crashing down the road. The circumstances may be quite terrible, but the Lord is still near. God does not promise to fix it all (not yet). But He does promise rest in it all. We are not instantly lifted out of the mess of life. Life is still a mess. But we are transformed in the mess so that the mess no longer controls us. We live on different terms.
Not only does this small phrase force us to confront a radical change in perspective and direction, it also stretches our horizon to include every facet of human existence. Did you see that Paul requires us to apply this radical shift to everything? The word is panti, from the Greek word pas. Pas is the Greek concept of the whole. It means the totality of something. When it is used as a noun without the article, it has the sense of including all, covering everything. Pas is the second most common word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It occurs more than 6000 times. This fact reflects the central belief of the Hebrews that God is the Creator and Ruler of all that exists. There is nothing outside of His control and domain. This fact implies that God rules our lives even if we do not acknowledge Him.
In the New Testament, pas occurs 1228 times. These occurrences reflect the same unwavering belief that God rules all life. For Paul, there is no possibility of circumstances occurring accidentally. Therefore, there is nothing that God is not concerned about. There are no trivial concerns because every element of life is stamped with divine sovereignty.
“By prayer” is a single word in Greek. The reason that we translate this word as a prepositional phrase is that the Greek case (a form of grammar) is dative. This means it is an indirect object. Therefore, it is translated with “by”. The word itself is proseuche. Although the word is Greek, the thought form behind it is far from the Greek world. By the first century, prayer for the Greeks had deteriorated into nothing more than self-actualizing positive thought. Greek religion discovered long before that the gods were impotent to change Man’s fate. Therefore, petitioning the gods in prayer was useless. Prayer served the function of psychological readjustment, focusing innate human potential of the possibility of change. It had little to do with a sovereign God Who intimately cared for His children. It was nothing more than the power of positive thinking.
Prayer in the Old Testament begins from an entirely different basis. Since God is the absolute Creator and Ruler of all that is, and He requires obedience and worship, prayer serves two purposes. It fulfills the requirement of confession and sacrifice and it opens the floodgates of blessing and mercy. Life in the community of God’s chosen is a life filled by the ritual of prayer. The Psalms are the greatest example of piety and proclamation within the sphere of God’s all-powerful control. The Old Testament man acknowledged God’s reign through prayer, even if in practice he often acted as though God reigned from a heavenly distance.
But Jesus changed everything. Jesus life of prayer dominated every aspect of his purpose. In fact, the events of his life seem secondary to the communication he enjoyed with the Father. His prayers open the door to intimacy as never before, revealing the Father with family imagery and intimacy that no Jew thought possible. For Jesus, prayer was the primary motive before and behind action. When Paul uses this word to describe our confident petitions placed before the throne of the Almighty, he does nothing more than reiterate the complete dependence that Jesus demonstrated. Prayer is the power cord that activates the believer.
Paul adds “and supplication”. This is deesei, a Greek word that finds its root in deomai, meaning, “to want or lack for oneself.” Deesei are personal needs.
Why does Paul use both terms? Doesn’t “prayer” include the idea of “personal needs”? The answer is, “Yes, it does.” But Paul wants us to realize that prayer is not just about the grand vista of God’s plan for the cosmos. It is not just about the multitude of lost souls. It is not just about the mission of the church or the plight of the poor. Prayer is also about my personal needs. The God of the grandeur of the ocean is also the God of the grains of sand. He wants us to share our intimate, secret lives with Him. He wants to know the secret desires of our hearts, vocalized as expression of dependence on His grace. Ours is a God who gives. He does not have to be appeased or placated. It is in His nature to give. So Paul says, approach him with your personal requests. Let Him know about what you lack. He loves to give.
But here is the caveat. Paul adds the critical phrase, “with thanksgiving.” Prayer and supplication – the greatest concerns of creation and the smallest personal poverty are important to Him. They need to be placed before Him with an attitude of thanksgiving. “With thanksgiving” is the Greek phrase meta eucharistias. You will recognize both words if you look closely. Meta is the word we use as a prefix in metamorphosis, metaphysical and metaphor. Its primary meaning is to location in the middle of something, to be in the midst. It has the sense of “together among”. It is contrasted from another Greek word sum that means “together in union.” Thanksgiving is to be mixed up in the middle of all of these prayers. It is not separable from the activity of requesting.
Why does Paul want us to see that thanksgiving is part of the process of making prayer requests? Because Paul knows that God gives, and since it is in God’s nature to give, every prayer, no matter what it is about, touches the heart of a giving God. Every prayer is a statement of thanksgiving to a God who granted life to the petitioner. Every prayer is an acknowledgement of the grace of the One Who cares. It is simply not possible to pray in the Spirit of God without thanksgiving. It would be like trying to breathe in a vacuum. The design of prayer is constructed from the fabric of thanksgiving. We should remember that the lack of thankfulness is one of the two actions of men that caused God to judge and abandon them (Romans 1:21). Thanksgiving is the natural expression of a heart that has acknowledged its dependence.
In this text, the word is eucharistias. You will see our English expression “Eucharist” in this word. Eucharist is the thanksgiving celebration of the death of Christ. It is the demonstration of our total dependence on our Savior. The Greek word has roots in words that mean “well pleasing” and “gift giving”. Thanksgiving is quite literally speaking good words about the great gifts we have received.
let your requests be made known to God
Once again the emphasis found in the Greek text is surprising. We might think that the process of making our requests is the focus of Paul’s thought, but it is not. The English text puts the emphasis on the verb, but Paul tells us that it is the noun, “requests”, that occupies center stage. Why does this matter? Reflect just a little on the approach we usually make in prayer. We often begin with the feeling that we need to go through some sort of ritual or special process in order to get God to hear us. We think it is necessary to have the right posture (hands up or knees bent) or the right introduction (Oh, Father) or the right close (in the name of Jesus). But all of this is nothing more than formula unless we recognize that God is interested in what’s on our minds, not in what actions we take to speak with Him. He doesn’t really care if you stand on your head. He wants to know what’s on your heart.
The Greek word for “requests” is aitemata. It is used only twice in the New Testament. In order to understand its fuller meaning, we need to look at the use of this word in the LXX. That will give us a clue to its Hebrew background. We find that the Greek word aitema is used to translate the Hebrew word mis’alah. Its root word (sha’al) is used over one hundred times to describe asking God for guidance or for some need. The Hebrew viewpoint that God is the ultimate source of all needful things stands behind the idea of “requests”. We are not making pleas to a God who cannot and will not give us the true desires of our hearts. The context of Psalm 37:4 makes it clear that God loves to fulfill our desires. But those desires are a result of our delight in His character. Our requests are tied directly to the identification of our needs with His purposes.
be made known
How do we make our requests known to God? The verb gnorizo has an umbrella of meanings that help us understand some of the mechanics of prayer. The word means, “to reveal, to declare, to narrate, to tell, to inform, to announce, to unfold, to proclaim, to put in mind, to impress upon, to confirm, to find out and to ascertain.” Do you see that all of these nuances require deliberate action? Most of them are related to some form of speech, but even “to put in mind” means to intentionally dwell upon something. Prayer requests are quite a bit more than a passing thought or a mental sticky-note. Look at the list of meanings again. Do you see how many of them are associated with forceful speech? Declare, announce, proclaim, confirm – all carry the idea of effective vocalization. You can’t announce God’s goodness in a whisper.
If you are going to make your request known to God, you need to put some punch behind your words. If your requests come from the depths of your heart, they will be expressed forcefully, with conviction and stamina. God loves to hear your voice lifted up to Him. Make it real. Tell Him just how it is. Announce your trust. Proclaim His faithfulness. Narrate your story. Unfold your need. Declare your desire. You are speaking to the Ruler of the Universe. Don’t whimper. If you have something to say, say it!
We are apt to run right over this last prepositional phrase as though it is an “of course” acknowledgement. We should not dismiss the connection so quickly. The active verb in this part of our verse shows us that God wants us to make our case with forceful conviction. He is deeply interested in what really motivates us. He is glad to hear the proclamations, declarations and announcements of our hearts. But so many times we do our proclaiming, declaring, announcing, narrating and revealing to everyone except God. We let everyone know how we feel. We tell our secret wishes to close friends. We give our story to those who will listen. We proclaim our pains and woes and concerns to the masses. We talk to everyone and anyone. But this small phrase tells us that the real audience for all of this vocalization is the audience of One. Talk to Him. That is the conversation that matters. All of our efforts to “tell it like it is” mean nothing unless those efforts are directed to the One Who is able to satisfy. Paul could not have ended the verse with “let your requests be made known.” He was compelled to add “to God.” He is the first and the last in our conversation links. Without Him, it is just hot air.
Verse 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Results! Isn’t that what we want when we come to God in prayer? We want something to happen. Paul assures us that something will happen. Every time. Guaranteed. We will be the recipients of the peace of God.
The Greek word eirene is a powerful word. In Classic Greek it meant, “the absence of war”. By implication, it came to mean “health, well-being and prosperity”. But the Greek meaning placed the word in a context of external or internal conditions. For the Greeks, peace was the exception to the rule. War was the natural state of affairs, whether between men or between Man and nature. Peace was an aberration.
When the word was used in the New Testament, the Hebrew influence changed this context. The word took on the sense of relationships, not of conditions. In the New Testament, the word is not primarily associated with resolution of political conflict, good health, personal well-being or even prosperity. It is associated with words like love, grace, glory, honor, righteousness and mercy. Its opposites are also words about relationships: anxiety, anguish, fear, confusion, division, distress.
The Hebrew background for this change comes from the word shalom. It is still used in Jewish personal greetings today. Its meaning is much deeper than simply the absence of strife or hostilities. Its true context means completeness, wholeness, harmony or fulfillment in both our undertakings and our relationships. This kind of peace is the result of God’s promise toward us. Shalom is God’s intentional gift of well-being. It extends not only to the relationship between men and God but also between Man and all of the rest of God’s creation. Well-being is far more than a truce. It is the gift of harmony.
Shalom began in the heart of God. While we were at war with God, He issued a declaration of peace toward us. God’s peace is not the result of a negotiated settlement but rather the outcome of His righteousness. Under God’s rule, the man who has been given God’s peace is the man who has been blessed with God’s rest and who is treated with grace. All of this comes about through a divine gift. It is important to remember that Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. His death healed the wound between God and us and makes all other recovery possible. This verse promises that God Himself will give us peace. Our word for this experience is serenity. It will come as a gift from God when we diligently pursue the surrender of ourselves and trust in God’s care. God calls us back to sanity, and offers as a gift what we could never find by struggle – peace of heart.
Paul focuses our attention on the manifestation of shalom. It is not the end of hostility that Paul has in mind here. God’s declaration of peace is the backdrop to another level of serenity. Those who know that their war with God has ended are the recipients of another gift – the presence of God’s character in their lives.
In the first verse of this passage we found that giving is an essential characteristic of God. “God gave” is the most powerful statement of reconciliation in the universe. Now we find Paul pointing us toward another essential attribute of the divine – harmony. It is God’s nature to exist in harmony. The three persons of the Trinity know eternal perfect harmony and that is exactly God’s desire for each of us. To be complete in God is to perfectly fulfill the destiny that God intends for us. Initiated into a relationship with god through the finished work of Christ, we experience the process of being shaped into a person of harmony. We take on the characteristic of well-being. And that characteristic is completely independent of the circumstances of this world because it is based not within the event horizon of this world but rather on the nature of the One Who calls us to well-being. It is not our peace that we receive. It is God’s peace. And it is not earned. It is given.
The God Who gives, gives well-being.
which surpasses all comprehension
There is a mystery to God interaction in this world. It is a glorious mystery, without fear because it comes from the God Who gives, but it is still a mystery. Paul captures this thought perfectly with the expression “which surpasses all comprehension.”
Huperecho is the Greek word that means, “to have over and above.” But this is a relational word. You can’t just have “over and above”. You have to have “over and above something.” Paul tells us that huperecho relates two things – God’s peace and our lives. God’s peace is over and above us. It is not quite enough to say that God’s peace is over and above our comprehension or our understanding. The word Paul uses is a word that describes the entire intellect, emotion and will of a man. It is the comprehensive word that means who and what we are. God’s peace is not just above our thoughts. It affects all of who we are.
From any perspective except God’s, life often doesn’t make any sense. Everything seems to be out of order and headed for destruction. Bad things seem to be piling up in record proportion. But in the middle of all of this, and perhaps because of all of this, something just unexplainable is happening. God is at work manifesting His peace. We may not have a clue how this is done, but we have His word that it is being done. If fact, if you are feeling calm within the storm, that is probably a good indicator that you have let go of the pile of conditions on your life. Paul tells us that we will not be able to give any rational, emotional or volitional explanation. But don’t be surprised. Enjoy the gift of well-being in the middle of crisis. It is God manifesting His character in you.
shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
At last we reach the reason for all of this. Standing guard. The Greek word (phroureo) means to stand watch, to act as a sentinel. It is a military term and intended to convey the rigorous and disciplined watchfulness of a soldier. This is the promise we have been waiting to hear. God is on guard duty. What is it that God is so carefully guarding? Both my heart and my mind. Heart and mind are intended to encompass all that I am, my emotions and will along with my thoughts and intentions. God does not do half the job. Every part of my person is under His care.
We should notice that Paul is completing a huge circle. He began with the concept of joy based entirely on the relationship God establishes with us. Joy is nothing more or less than the celebration of God’s handiwork in my life. Joy is independent of any of my life circumstances and completely dependent on the faithfulness of God. As a result of His faithfulness, I can experience a life of deep calm – a calm that exhibits itself in gentleness toward life and an ability to trust in His care for all of my needs. Now the circle is being closed. The same God Who brought me into relationship with Him is protecting that relationship. His efforts guard all of my being. Just as my joy does not depend on my efforts, the protection of my relationship to Him is also in His hands. To be anxious for nothing includes even this. I do not have to be afraid of losing His grace and care.
The end of Paul’s great statement of God’s sovereignty is found in the phrase in Christ Jesus. It is the fitting end for this full circle because it is the life of Jesus that makes the circle possible. I rest in the security of God’s protection because Jesus said, “It is finished.” It is the true circle of Life. It began with God and it ends with God. And we are carried along on the stream of God’s purposes, able to float serenely in the current of His care because God gives.
Back to the beginning. REJOICE!