Over the last two weeks, we’ve been considering Paul’s command to “let your gentle spirit be known to all men” (Philippians 4:5). We considered five characteristics of that gentleness, and then took some time to consider the scope of that command, noting that we are not only to be gentle with fellow Christians, but also with those who are enemies of the Gospel.
And we ended last time asking how could possibly do that? let our gentle and forbearing spirit be evident to all people—even those that would take advantage of us?
And we can be so thankful that Paul seems to never lay upon the shoulders of the people of God a divine imperative without also laying under our feet a divine indicative upon which we can stand. In Philippians 4:4 he didn’t merely command us to “Rejoice always,” but to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The Lord Himself is to be the source, sphere, object, and ground of our rejoicing. Well here also in verse 5, he doesn’t merely command us, “Let your gentle spirit be made known to all men,” but also adds, “the Lord is near.”
So, how is it that we can patiently endure the ill-treatment of a hostile and perverse generation, and consistently repay evil with good? How can we subject ourselves to the attacks of the enemies of Christ and His Gospel without becoming defensive and asserting our rights? Paul says, “The Lord is near.” This is the ground of our gentleness.
Near in Space, or Near in Time?
But what precisely does he mean? Is he saying that the Lord is near in a spatial sense—the way we say, “The mouse is near my computer”? Is his point that Christ is ever-present with His people, aware of your circumstances, and able to come to your aid? People who take this view say that Paul is standing on the promise of Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” and treasuring the truth of Psalm 73:28: “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge.” Certainly that would provide a ground and incentive to gentleness: to know that at every moment, Jesus your Savior is with you, at your side, examining and scrutinizing your response to suffering and so giving you the highest of accountability; but also there to strengthen and comfort you and to tend to the wounds you sustain on this path of obedience.
Or, is Paul saying that the Lord is near in a temporal sense—the way we say, “Vacation time is near”? In this sense, his point would be that Christ will return soon, and will bring vengeance upon the enemies of His people and will bring all His good promises to pass. Those who take this view note the similar exhortation of James 5:8: “You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near,” and of 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit.” This would also seem to fit with the eschatological tone set by the immediate context in Philippians 3:20–21, which entreats us to eagerly await our Savior from heaven and look forward to the day when He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory.Certainly that would provide a ground and incentive to gentleness: to know that at any moment, Christ is coming to vindicate our cause, and that “the shame [we bear in our] persecution will soon be exchanged for the glory and honor of participating in Christ’s victory” (Hansen, 289).
So, which is it? Well, both interpretations are biblically and theologically correct, and so we may certainly draw strength from both of them in order to fuel our gentleness. The Lord who may return at any moment to conquer our enemies and vindicate our faith is also the Lord who is near to His people at all times in the Person of the Holy Spirit, whom He Himself has given to us to guide and direct us in the path of holiness.
But though both are true and are valid sources of spiritual strength and stability, I believe Paul had in mind more the temporal sense. Commentator William Hendriksen captures the thought well: “The idea seems to be: since Christ’s coming is near, when all the promises made to God’s people will become realities, believers, in spite of being persecuted, can certainly afford to be mild and charitable in their relation to others” (194).
So if Paul considers the coming of the Lord to be a sufficient ground and incentive for the display of our gentleness of spirit, it’s fitting that we should reflect on this reality and be stirred up to obedience. To that end, I want to share with you four brief reflections on the coming of the Lord that will strengthen us to endure all manner of affliction with gentleness.
This World is Not Our Home
First, the imminent return of the Lord Jesus teaches us that this world is not our home. The promise of His coming reminds us that this life is a vapor when compared with eternity—just a cloud of warm breath that appears in the cold air for a moment and then vanishes away (Jas 4:4). And so all the comforts and pleasures that get us so worked up such that we are incapable of conducting ourselves with gentleness—all of those are fading away (1 John 2:17). And why should we sacrifice obedience to our Lord, making withdrawals, as it were, from the bank account of eternity, in order to invest in the commodities of this world which we know are headed for certain bankruptcy?
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