This passage in the fourth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians has served and continues to serve as a source of enrichment and encouragement to me and to myriad others. These verses contain three Greek words — ho kyrios engus — rendered in English with the words “The Lord is near.”
By declaring that the “Lord is near,” it is not immediately clear what Paul means. On the one hand, he could be declaring that the coming or the return of the Lord Jesus is near. The apostle clearly thought and taught this elsewhere in Philippians (3:20-21). On the other hand, it may well be that Paul’s focus does not fall so much on the Lord’s eventual coming as much as it does on his continual, abiding presence.
Scripture is replete with reminders that the Lord is near to all who will call upon Him (Psalm 145:18). What is more, Psalm 34:18 assures that “the Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 139 is particularly poignant regarding the Lord’s promised presence. The psalm assures that the Lord is with us from beginning to end through thick and thin.
Because this is true in both principle and practice, precept and experience, it changes everything. That is why Paul can declare earlier in his letter to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). When we allow the promise of the Lord’s nearness to inform our days, it can also transform our days, indeed, our very lives. We can join the psalmist in confessing that “the nearness of God is my good” (Psalm 73:28).
I am convinced that the apostle’s confidence in the Lord’s nearness undergirds and animates his instructions to the Philippians in the verses that we read earlier. Note from this passage what an awareness of God’s presence allows:
Because the Lord is near, we can be joyful. Time and again in Philippians, Paul calls the assembly to rejoice. Far from a fleeting feeling, joy is “the flag flown from the castle of your heart when the king is in residence.” It is a bedrock belief that though all hell breaks loose, all heaven will come to the rescue. Joy is what allows a shackled apostle to compose Philippians and beaten, imprisoned apostles to pray and to sing songs of praise to God in a Philippian jail in the middle of the night (Acts 16:25). Nehemiah 8:10 gets it right: “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”
Because the Lord is near, we can be gentle. The apostle instructs the Philippians to “let their gentleness be made known to all.” Gentleness characterized Jesus (Matthew 11:29), and it should no less characterize His followers. It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) that is sorely needed in a hostile, hateful world. We do well to remember that a “gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
Because the Lord is near, we can be prayerful. For the Christian, prayer is not the last resort — it is the first recourse. When people find themselves between a rock and a hard spot, it is sometimes quipped, “You haven’t got a prayer.” Whatever is true, this isn’t. As long as we have breath, we have a prayer. So, “Lord, listen to your children praying. Lord, send your spirit in this place. Lord, listen to your children praying. Send us love. Send us pow’r. Send us grace.”
Because the Lord is near, we can be peaceful. Prayer and peace are either side of the same coin. Prayer enables us to jettison anxiety and to entrust ourselves to a trustworthy God. When we go to God in humble, thankful prayer, the mind-bending, heart-guarding peace of God will envelop us. God is a God of peace, and God will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him (Isaiah 26:3).
Because the Lord is near, we can be mindful of the good, the true and the beautiful, to paraphrase Philippians 4:8. If we are to have the mind of Christ — as Philippians 2:5 calls us to — then we will need to learn to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). When we sow a thought, we reap an action; in sowing an action, we reap a habit; in sowing a habit, we reap a lifestyle; in sowing a lifestyle, we reap a destiny.
Paul rounds out this passage by calling the Philippians to keep doing that which they have been schooled to do through word and way (4:9). Because the Lord is near, they can be faithful. Philippians 1:6 maintains that “the one who began a good work among them [and us] will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
As Paul ponders his own pilgrimage in Philippians 4:10-13, he speaks of learning the secret of contentment regardless of external pressures or pleasures. His secret and ours is really no secret at all. Contentment in a COVID-19 world and otherwise is linked to our commitment and confession that we can do all things through the one who is strengthening us.
For His strength is perfect, when our strength is gone. He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on. Raised in His power, the weak become strong. His strength is perfect.