Philippians 4:1-9 is all about reconciliation. I’ve read this passage dozens of times; I’ve listened to sermons about it—and today I undertake to unpack it with you. It’s a privilege to offer my understandings, though the very contents of the passage compel me to caution you that my comprehension of God’s Word is limited.
Paul begins by reaffirming his love for the people of the church in Philippi and calling on them to “in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1, NASB). A quick glance back to the preceding verse shows us that “this way” is our trust that as citizens of heaven, Christ “…will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21, NASB).
So we’re to stand on God’s promise of our redemption. Next Paul calls attention to a dispute between Euodia and Syntyche and encourages them to settle their differences. He calls on an unnamed person (often theorized to be Epaphroditus, who delivered this letter from Paul to Philippi (see for example, William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians) to help them in achieving harmony, pointing out that they’ve worked together in the past to share the Gospel and are among those who’ve accepted the gift of salvation (Philippians 4:2-3).
No further mention is made of this dispute. Paul, writing from prison in Rome, knew of the disagreement and addressed it in his letter. So I suppose that the argument was more significant than some first-century equivalent of a squabble over how to display the cupcakes at the youth group’s bake sale.
In the next verses, (4-6) Paul exhorts the reader (twice!) to rejoice. He advises to display a gentle spirit and to set aside anxiety, instead, through prayer, with gratitude, to lift all one’s requests to God. Then he proposes a remarkable result:
And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (v. 7, NASB, my italics).
To offer a gross paraphrase:
Resolve your differences, with help of a mediator. You’re God’s people now; show that godly spirit. Don’t gnaw on your discord. Instead, give it up with thanks to God and accept His peace in your heart, even though you don’t understand it. Not “even if you don’t understand;” rather, “even though you don’t understand” the peace.
Paul ends the passage with instructions:
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
(vv. 8-9, NASB)
He’s instructing them to focus on the good stuff. In light of the previous verses, we can see that his suggestion is to quit dwelling on the points of contention, and instead to look to the honorable, pure, right, lovely, reputable, excellent, and praiseworthy: fill your mind with worthy thoughts (and crowd out the ugliness of discord). Paul instructs his readers to practice what he’s taught them in order to arrive at God’s peace.
This passage convicts me and gives me hope. I suffer from a tendency to dig through a conflict all the way to its bedrock, often insisting that my partner-in-conflict grab a shovel and a pick and excavate right along beside me. And it’s hard for a godly spirit to shine through all the dust and mud I pick up while busily digging in that pit.
My reliance on my own understanding to give rest to a dispute is worldly, not Biblical. In this passage in Philippians, Paul reminds us that God’s gifts for us—including a peaceful heart—are beyond our comprehension. He’s sketched out a practical program for following the wise counsel of Proverbs 3:5-6:
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
6 In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.