In this posting, we are concluding the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published the New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.
In this blog series, we’ve been sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.
For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway published a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the final study, A Common Life of Unity, Joy, and Peace | Philippians 4:2-9, 21-23
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true compan- ion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, what- ever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 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.
Paul often begins to end his letters a page or two before he finally signs off. He’s at times more like the preacher who seems to have two or three or four endings before ending. His “Finally” in verse eight then is but the beginning of “Finally.” In this beautiful first-of-his-final section three of his favorite themes in this letter come to expression again: unity (4:2–3), joy (4:4–7), and peace (4:8–9).
It’s good to start with the last line of this first paragraph, that is, with the end of verse three. He will soon mention three names and a number of others who are unnamed, and he reminds them that all their names are “in the book of life” (4:3). We can nurture unity with those with whom we disagree when we begin with a profound reality: we will live with one another in peace in the final kingdom of God.
The first two names surprise us. We have not heard of these women before but mentioning their names may well make us wonder if their contentions with one another were at work in other passages. Many think so. The name Euodia means “Ms. Good Path” and Syntyche means “Ms. Fortune.” Cool names aside, Paul knows they are at odds with one another.
He wants them to “be of the same mind” (4:2), which means to come to some kind of agreement. We can’t be sure what they were on about, though many suggestions have been made, including how to relate their own social status to living as a Christian in Philippi or perhaps they were battling in court.
Asking two people at odds to agree often does not do it as it involves compromise, and often each believes her position is principled and right. Knowing this, Paul asks a specific unnamed person (“you”), whom he calls his “true companion” or the one with whom he is “harnessed together,” to nurture reconciliation. But then we get some more information about the situation. Euodia and Syntyche have competed with Paul in gospel mission work along with “Clement” and other “co-workers,” his favorite term for his inner circle of gospel missioners.
This puts these two women inside the circle of co-workers, which means gospel workers–evangelizing, teaching, planting churches, praying, visiting, offering hospitality, raising funds, and more. Were they deacons? Were they household leaders of different house churches? Were they bishops? What is clear, as Osiek observed, is that they are not just bickering women, which is a sexist observation by too many, but leaders of significance in Philippi. Their tension taxed the assemblies.
Again, someone says “persecution,” and Paul answers back with “joy.” This is not a mental trick, even if the happiness project works for some. No, this is a joy “in the Lord” because, as he tells them in the next verse, the Lord’s coming is “near.” Joy transcends our sense of happiness when happiness slides into smiley faces or giddiness. Joy is a disposition and an emotion of seeing the present in light of the final kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus right now. The End’s “all will be well” opens the door to joy.
Joy in whatever we face leads Paul to encourage those in Philippi to a list of healthy practices in the midst of social tension over the gospel and the church. The temptation is to get busy doing something about it–contacting the authorities, public debates in the marketplace, and worry worry worry. No Paul says, resume your life, avoid aggressiveness, and form a “gentleness . . . evident” to the public (4:5).
How? Turn to communion with God as the antidote to inner turbulence, which is my translation for “anxious.” What might that be? What wakes you up in the middle of the night that will not let you fall back to sleep? What raises your blood pressure and makes your face go flush? What makes you tense and makes your palms sweat and what turns at times into anxiety attacks?
The first-century philosopher Seneca once said, “The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace.” He had to know. The man was in the inner circle of the emperor.
Now I have wandered into something that in many cases will need more than someone telling you to pray more. I don’t believe that Paul provides a full “cure for worry.” “Do not be anxious” is not about anxiety disorders or trauma-related panic attacks. At times we will need a therapist to help us identify our anxieties and their roots, a therapist who can guide us into better coping skills–like rest, relaxation, exercise, better eating habits, cognitive-behavioral or trauma therapies, and perhaps medication.
In Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Lila, the narrator says of the lead character who observes her pastor husband praying. “She meant to ask him sometime how praying is different from worrying. His face was about as strained and weary as it could be, white as it could be.” Few tie prayer and worry together so tightly, but that’s to the detriment of many. They go together.
Paul does not know what we know about therapy, but he does know prayer has helped him immensely. It has helped many of us. Regardless, “in every situation,” he says, we can turn to God in “prayer and petition” and just plain ask God for help (4:6).
Prayers of petitions in the history of the church have formed into what is called a “collect,” a formal prayer of request. It begins by naming God (Father, God Almighty, etc.), and it then says something to God about God that reminds God of a truth about God that forms a solid foundation for the request.
So we have “Father, you are the transcendent and utterly calm God of all creation and you know all things” Then it turns to the request: “Calm my heart and mind and relieve my anxieties.” This is then followed by a commitment for the one praying: “That I may do what you have called me to do more effectively, less anxiously, and more victoriously.” And Christian prayers always finish with something like “through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
Nothing has been more calming and soothing in my own soul than the collects of the church and pondering God in the midst of my own anxious moments.
Finishing his encouragement to pray (4:6–7), no surprise here is the claim that prayer promotes peace (4:7), which leads Paul to another “Finally” about doing the right things. In doing the right things “the God of peace will be with you” (4:9). So, peace begins and ends this exhortation to do the right things. What are the right things, which are right-er when done as well at the right time?
Whatever is true,
Whatever is noble,
Whatever is pure,
Whatever is lovely,
Whatever is admirable.
If anything is excellent or praiseworthy . . .
What a splendid list of eight virtues, any of which can remind us of what the right thing may be for us to do!
Paul urges the Philippians to think positive thoughts: “Think about such things” and not about the sources and causes of our anxieties. I confess that what often has calmed my soul in the middle of the night is not these wonderful virtues but standing near a golf green and chipping balls onto the green. Which was an improvement for me over my mother’s instruction to me as a child, which may have been yours: Count sheep. And think about it, sheep are covered with an abundance of wool, wool makes me itch and get warm, and that doesn’t help me get to sleep at all. God does.
Paul returns to the theme of imitation (see 3:12–4:1) to close this passage with one more “whatever,” and this one is “whatever you have learned or received or heard from him, or seen in me–put into practice” (4:9). This whatever reduces those eight virtues above to one: imitation of a wise person. The best way to grow is to imitate the one who has grown.
As you may remember, we began this study by looking at 4:10–20 as the gateway into this wonderful letter. Skipping that passage now, we turn to the end. He wants them to greet “God’s people in ChristJesus.” The siblings who are near Paul in his imprisonment send their greetings too (4:21).
In fact, “all God’s people” in Rome with Paul share their greetings, but Paul mentions a special group when he says, “especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). It appears Paul is in the custody of the emperor and some of those who are guarding him are in the employ of the emperor Nero. Some of those have converted to the gospel about Jesus through Paul’s witness. The Book of Acts told that very story of the gospel’s expansion from Jerusalem all the way to Rome.
After all this letter’s emphasis on generosity and gift giving, we cannot avoid hearing something about gift giving when Paul signs off with “the grace [that is, the gift of God’s grace] of our Lord JesusChrist,” who is grace embodied, “be with your spirit. Amen” (4:23).
Questions for Reflection and Application
- What have you been taught or assumed about Euodia and Syntyche in the past? How does this study impact your view of them?
- What are the conflicts and worries in your life that threaten to choke out unity and joy?
- How has prayer comforted you when you were anxious
- In addition to prayer, what other gifts of experience, rest, and science have brought peace to your worry?
- What have you learned about the common life shared together with others in Christ through this study?