Gospel-Shaped Affections: A Gentle and Forbearing Spirit (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 4:5   |   Sunday, March 2, 2014   |   Code: 2014-03-02-MR



I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a rapidly-increasing anti-Christian culture. The blogs and news channels have been flooded this week with comments on Arizona’s Senate Bill 1062. The bill was drafted in order to protect the religious freedom of business owners whose religious convictions would not allow them to take an active role in the celebration of homosexuality. America has witnessed numerous cases in recent months in which the so-called “civil rights” of homosexuals have been pitted against the religious freedom of conscientious Christians.


In Gresham, Oregon, bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein declined to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. They apologized politely, and explained that the celebration of homosexuality violated their religious convictions as Christians. The lesbian couple filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, and publicized via social media what they believed to be discrimination. It wasn’t long before the owners of the bakery received threatening letters and phone calls, including those which wished sickness, physical harm, and death upon them and their children. The Kleins fought the legal battle, but eventually lost when the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that their decision was discriminatory. The Kleins have had to close their business as a result.


Another instance occurred when a photographer in New Mexico declined to shoot a “wedding” for another lesbian couple. Elaine Huguenin said she would be happy to provide other photographic services to homosexuals—like, for example, shooting portraits—but said she was uncomfortable with celebrating something she believed to be sinful, and recommended another photographer. Despite this, the New Mexico Supreme Court found her guilty of violating the couple’s “human rights.”


Barronelle Stutzman is a florist in Washington State who had been serving a homosexual couple, whom she considered her friends, for ten years at her flower shop. When they asked her to provide floral arrangements for their “wedding,” Stutzman responded by tenderly grasping her friend’s hand and saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” She reports that they hugged each other before he left the store, and she thought that was the end of it. But the couple had taken to Facebook to spread the word of her so-called “discrimination.” Her refusal was reported to authorities, and despite her serving this couple for ten years—and simply refusing to celebrate sin—she’s now being sued by the Washington State Attorney General.


And so situations like these led Arizona lawmakers to draft this bill, which was designed to provide legal protection for business owners who don’t want to be compelled to celebrate that which violates their religious beliefs. But that bill was vetoed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer, declaring that it would “legalize discrimination.”


Now, some of you are saying, “Well, Mike, I don’t like that that’s happening any more than you do, but that doesn’t really affect me. I’m not a baker, a photographer, or a florist. I don’t have to worry about this.” And I understand that. And I also don’t mean to imply that the sum and substance of Christianity is stemming the tide of homosexuality in our society. But where these examples intersect with our lives is precisely here: they provide us with incontrovertible evidence that our society is racing towards secularism at breakneck speed. We are approaching a time in our culture when the exclusive and absolute claims of Christianity simply will not be tolerated—a time when any public expression of our faith in the Christ of Scripture—anything but an enthusiastic celebration of the moral bankruptcy of contemporary secularism—will be derided as archaic and primitive, ridiculed as narrow-minded and bigoted, and actively persecuted as unjust and discriminatory. In an op-ed article in the Washington Times, responding to the vetoing of the Arizona bill, one writer said, “This is an effort to condition the public into automatically equating faith with bigotry . . . to make faith in the public square illegal and dangerous. . . .” They are coming for you, faithful follower of Christ. They are coming for the church.


And so the question is: In the midst of that kind of devoted hostility to your Savior and His Word, how will you be able to stand firm against the pressures that are sure to come if the Lord tarries? How will you be able to hold your ground? How will you be able to “suffer hardship…as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:3?


Well, that is precisely the question that Paul is answering in Philippians chapter 4. There in the Roman province of Macedonia, a veritable center for the celebration of the pagan culture that had dominated that day, these dear people had been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son through the preaching of the Apostle Paul and his companions. They who had gloried in their Roman citizenship had now been enrolled in the register of citizens of the kingdom of Heaven (3:20). And as surely as the light shines in the darkness (cf. John 1:5), and as surely as the darkness hates the light (cf. John 3:20), these Philippians—whose greatest allegiance was no longer to Lord Caesar, but to Lord Jesus—these Philippians began to face the threat of opposition from their pagan neighbors. At the very heart of this letter, Paul speaks of their “opponents,” chapter 1 verse 28, the inevitability of their suffering for Christ’s sake, verse 29, and their “experiencing the same conflict” that Paul himself had experienced, verse 30.


And in chapter 1 verse 27, he calls them, literally, to conduct themselves as citizens in a manner worthy of the Gospel. And a paramount way in which they will show themselves to be dutiful citizens of the kingdom of Heaven is to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents.” They are to be good soldiers of Christ Jesus—to hold their ground—and not to yield an inch in their commitment to Christ and His Gospel. And Paul resumes that very same burden in chapter 4 verse 1, when he exhorts them again, “Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.”


And so in the recent weeks we’ve been examining this exhortation to spiritual stability, and the following means that Paul lists as to how the people of God are to go about attaining to this true, biblical steadfastness. And with this feel of resolute conviction, of intransigent determination, you might expect these ways in which the people of God are to stand firm to be characterized by an unbending sharpness—a furrowed brow and clenched fists. But paradoxically, we’ve been learning that the church stands most firmly and most resolutely against the evil influences of the world when the people of God are the most yielding and most accommodative of one another.


We’ve seen, from the way Paul deals with the disagreement of Euodia and Syntyche in verses 2 and 3, that spiritual stability and biblical steadfastness come as a result of a diligent devotion to unity within the body of Christ. The strength of any army consists fundamentally in the unity of its soldiers. If the soldiers are all doing their own thing, advancing at their own pace, fighting in their own way—and if they even begin fighting against each other—defeat is certain. But a well-trained army presents a united front, and fights with one mind and with one accord (cf. Hansen, 97). In the same way, disunity is a grave threat to the stability and steadfastness of any church. If the people of God are to stand firm in the Lord amidst the spiritual battle we find ourselves in, we must be diligently devoted to preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (cf. Eph 4:3).


And last time we learned that we must also be devoted to an unyielding pursuit of joy in the Lord. And this only makes sense. “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” the Apostle James asks. “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (Jas 4:1). Indeed, we want and do not have, and so we bicker with one another. But Paul says the answer to that is not to eliminate all pleasures from our lives, but to feast the appetites of our souls on the supreme pleasure that is to be found in the Lord Himself! The antidote to disunity is a relentless pursuit of joy in the Lord! Because when we seek all our pleasure and all our joy in Him, we will be satisfied, and will no longer feel the need to quarrel and bicker about things which, if we could have them, wouldn’t bring us as much pleasure as the Lord Himself does anyway! So if we would be marked by the kind of spiritual stability that Paul calls us to as the people of God, we must relentlessly pursue our joy in the Lord.


And this morning we come to the third command in this series of imperatives which comprise the means of biblical steadfastness. We must be diligently devoted to unity within the body of Christ, relentlessly pursuing our joy in the Lord, and, third, we must be marked by an eminent and demonstrable gentleness of spirit. And I draw that principle from our text this morning, Philippians chapter 4 verse 5: “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.”


And this imperative flows directly from the previous one. If we are committed to rejoicing in the Lord always—at all times and in all circumstances—then we will be characterized by gentleness to all people. Other people will experience our own rejoicing in the Lord, not just as they observe us singing praise and worship songs, but when that joy in Christ has so satisfied our souls that it overflows into demonstrable gentleness to everyone we come in contact with.


And friends, it is very difficult to overestimate the importance of this gentleness of spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls this command from the Apostle Paul “one of the highest demands of the Christian gospel.” He says, “I think we can safely say that the gospel, in a sense, never calls us to a greater height than it does here with regard to our life, our conduct, and practice” (Life of Peace, 156). Charles Simeon, the great British pastor in the late 18th and early 19th-century, wrote, “It is by a conformity to this latter precept [of gentleness], no less than by his obedience to the former [to rejoice always], that the true Christian will be distinguished. In fact, this precept enters very deeply into the divine life: and it is only in proportion as its influence is exhibited in our lives, that we have any satisfactory evidence of our conversion to God” (Horae Homileticae).


And so we’re going to take the rest of this morning to examine this essential Christian virtue. And similar to last time, we’re going to hang our thoughts on three supporting hooks as we seek to understand and apply this command to demonstrable gentleness. First, we’ll consider the command itself, examining the nature of this gentleness to which we’re called. Second, we’ll consider the scope of this command. And third, we’ll consider the ground and incentive for the command.


I. The Command


First, let us consider the command itself—the nature of this gentle spirit which we are called to demonstrate. Again, Philippians 4 verse 5: “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men.” That’s the translation of the New American Standard Update. The older NAS has, “Let your forbearance,” or “your forbearing spirit be made known to all men.” The ESV says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible has, “Let your graciousness be known to everyone.”


Now, why can’t the translators agree? It’s because this Greek word, epieikes, is notoriously difficult to capture in a single English word. One commentator says that the word “has a richer meaning than any single English word can convey” (MacArthur, 276). Another says, “There is not a single word in the English language that fully expresses the meaning of the original” (Hendriksen, 193). And so part of the difficulty that we have in pursuing this essential Christian quality of “gentleness”—of epieikes—is really putting our finger on the number of concepts that it encompasses.


Let me read you some of the words that the commentators have used to describe this concept. And it’s a long list, so bear with me, and try to take these in—and let a picture of this concept develop in your minds as I list some of its synonyms: gentleness, graciousness, forbearance, patience, sweet reasonableness, mildness, leniency, yieldedness, kindness, charitableness, considerateness, magnanimity, bigheartedness, generosity. All of these concepts are at play in this one word. And though we don’t have time to expound on each one of them, it will be beneficial for us to select a number of them and amplify them a bit—again, so that we can come to have a firm grasp on the nature of this duty to which we are called. So here are five characteristics of epieikesfive characteristics of the gentleness that is to dominate our demeanor as followers of Christ.


A. Reasonable Flexibility


First, there’s what I’ll call a reasonable flexibility. It’s interesting to note that in secular Greek, when this word was used of someone in authority, it referred to someone who exercised a discerning leniency. This was someone who when faced with a legal issue, and when he perceived that the strict application of the letter of the law would lead to commonsense injustice, he could discern a better course, and would, as one writer put it, “moderate the inflexible severity of wrath” (TLNT, 35). It was a discerning leniency; this was not someone who was simply unjust and would set aside the law at his whim. But it was a reasonable flexibility. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says this person had “the capacity to differentiate between what is really of vital importance and what is not, to stand like a rock by the things that are vital, [and] to be reasonable about the things that are not” (Life of Peace, 158). This is someone who was not so inflexible, unbending, and unyielding that they would insist on a person’s detriment for the sake of mere formalities. 


I’m tempted to say more about this, but I’ll just ask you: Can you see what great application this has for us in the church? what great need there is for us to be marked by a reasonable flexibility? There are some of you who conduct yourselves in relationships with others in the church that simply cannot abide it if something isn’t done according to a particular policy, or preferred method. You consistently insist on your own way, and you make others’ lives difficult until they bend to your direction. You’re the kind of person that other people are always accommodating and pacifying, lest there be some needless altercation. But you need to put that attitude away, dear friends! “Let your gentleness be evident to all men.” Be mild, kind—and, as long as it doesn’t violate the Word of God, be yielding; be reasonably persuadable—reasonably flexible.


B. Temperate Gentleness


Secondly, there is a temperate gentleness that pervades the disposition of one who is epieikes. You know these people. These are the people about whom you say, “He is just a gentle man,” or, “She is just a tender, warm, and welcoming woman.” There is a softness to these people—a tenderness about them. They always seem to know when it’s appropriate to be soft-spoken, and there never seems to be a harsh word on their lips. It seems almost impossible to frustrate them. There is a coolness and a calmness to their spirit, and they seem to have a calming influence on those around them.


The gentle person is someone that you would feel very comfortable speaking with about things that are troubling you in your life—someone you would feel very comfortable sharing your struggles in your Christian walk with. This isn’t someone who is going to be abrasive, and dismissive, and prickly; they’re not going to slap you on the shoulder and tell you to “suck it up!” This is someone who can be tender, and warm, and nurturing.


Are you that person? Is there a welcoming and nurturing disposition about you? When your brothers and sisters think of you, do they think of you as someone who can tenderly shepherd them through their struggles? Or are you someone they think of and say, “There’s no way I’m going to speak to him about that! He’s got all of the gentleness and grace of a chainsaw!” Some of you guys are saying, “Aw, Mike, put a lid on all that mushy-gushy talk, will you? I’m a man! I’m brusque and brash and gruff! I don’t go for all that touchy-feely stuff you’re talking about!” Oh? Well let me remind you of the man’s man who endured beatings, and imprisonments, and lashes, and stonings, and who went without food, and water, and clothing, and who when his boat was shipwrecked spent a night and a day in the ocean, clinging to a piece of the wreckage to fight for his own survival (2 Cor 11:23–29)! This was a gritty man! This was a man’s man! And this man wrote in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.” Friend, are you marked by such a temperate and gentle disposition that your brothers and sisters feel as safe and as cared-for in coming to you with their problems as a nursing infant feels in the arms of her loving mother?


I want all you bristly, abrasive, manly men to remember: your Lord Jesus was the manliest man to ever walk this earth—He literally went through hell on the cross, absorbed the unmixed fury of Almighty God exercised on His own innocent soul, voluntarily submitted to the grave, and three days later, on His own authority, took His own life up again (cf. John 10:18), and came out on the other side! And that man, your Savior, was gentle enough to take a little child in His arms (Mark 9:36), gentle enough to liken Himself to a shepherd who tenderly cares for His sheep, gentle enough to invite all those who were weak and heavy-laden under the burden of their sin to find rest in Him, “for,” He said, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:28–29).


C. Patient Forbearance


Third, the man or woman who is epieikes—who manifests the gentleness that Paul calls us to in Philippians 4:5—is marked by patient forbearance. And an easy way to see this nuance is to observe what terms the Word of God contrasts this with. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives the moral and spiritual qualifications for those who would serve as elders in Christ’s church. And in verse 3 he says that such men must not be addicted to wine, nor be pugnacious, but gentle, epieikes. A pugnacious man loves a fight. The older translations rendered this Greek word, “striker,” one who strikes. A basher. If anything or anyone gets in this man’s way, his first instinct is to strike, to bash. Alongside “pugnacious,” the Greek dictionaries include the word “bully” in the entry for this word (cf. BDAG).  And then in Titus 3:2, Paul gives directives not just for the elder or overseer, but for every member of the body of Christ. He says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” You see? Where the pugnacious man was ready to strike or bash whatever got in his way, here the man who is not marked by gentleness is eager to malign the person who does him wrong. Someone sins against this man or mistreats him, and his first instinct is to speak evil of that person. A gentle answer might turn away wrath, but this man is ready with a harsh word that stirs up the fire rather than puts it out (Prov 15:1).


But the gentle man is not so easily offended. His instinct is not to bash physically or bash verbally. He is marked by a humble, patient forbearance. Calvin said this man is “not easily moved by injuries” (117). Especially in the context in which the Philippians found themselves—facing both the pressures of persecution from without and the cancer of disunity from within—this word speaks of the one who is “able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred or malice, trusting God in spite of it all” (Leivestad, 158). Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it helpfully. He wrote, “[These] people have a control and mastery over themselves so that though darts are thrown, they do not find a sensitive place. … so that when these darts come, you can somehow receive them, and not worry about them—longsuffering, able to bear and forbear, not easily offended” (Life of Peace, 158).


Is this you, friends? Have you so pursued and found your joy in the Lord that when the darts of sinful offense are thrown at you, they don’t find a sensitive place? Have you gotten a sensible and sober view of your own sinfulness, such that there is something of Paul’s confession in your own heart: that you are the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), and so are always getting better than you deserve—even when someone wrongs you? Or are you pugnacious? Quick to take into account a wrong suffered? You say, “You don’t understand, Mike! I’m not worried that they’re offending me; I’m worried that they’re offending God and His Word! That’s why I’m harsh and brutish and cantankerous and needlessly offensive!” And yet Paul told Timothy that “The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:24–25).


D. Humble Surrender


And that leads very naturally into the next characteristic, number four: humble surrender. And by that I mean that the gentle man humbly and willingly surrenders his own rights. Even in secular usage this word had this connotation. The pagan philosopher Aristotle said that this word described “the one who by choice and habit does what is equitable, and who does not stand on his rights unduly, but is content to receive a smaller share although he has the law on his side” (Cited in Hansen, 288).


Oh how relevant this is for those of us in the church! Some of the most challenging, difficult, discouraging, wearying meetings I have been in have been those where professing believers refuse to patiently forbear sins committed against them because, “The other person was wrong, they sinned against me, and I have a right to” this, that, and the other thing! “Yes, Pastor, I know that love doesn’t take into account a wrong suffered, and bears all things, and believes all things (1 Cor 13:5, 7). I know that we are commanded to forgive one another, just as God has forgiven us in Christ (Eph 4:32). But I was right and she was wrong!” Oh friend, and Paul says to you, “Why not rather be wronged?! Why not rather be defrauded?!”


That is just an astounding thing to say! 1 Corinthians 6 verse 7. Paul was addressing the Corinthians who were embroiled in such conflict with one another that they were even taking one another to court! Christians suing Christians! How much further away from conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel can you get?! And Paul says, no matter who wins the lawsuit, you both lose—it’s already a defeat for you. And then he says, “Why not rather be wronged?! Why not rather be defrauded?!” How can it be that you could insist so severely on your own rights? You who profess to belong to the Savior who ransomed your soul from sin and death precisely by refusing to insist on His own rights! Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself!


He was God, friends! Absolutely sinless! Perfect and glorious in holiness! Equal to God the Father! And with every right in the universe for Him to remain in Heaven and enjoy the incessant praise of the saints and angels, He didn’t insist on His own rights, but emptied Himself and became the God-man. And when He was reviled, did not revile in return; and when He suffered, uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to His God who judges righteously (1 Pet 2:23). The Author of life died on a cross—the most shameful death that could be imagined—so that you could be free from sin and walk in righteousness. How can you be saved by that Gospel, and not rather be wronged, and not rather be defrauded?


William Hendriksen said, “The lesson which Paul teaches is that true blessedness cannot be obtained by the person who rigorously insists on whatever he regards as his just due. The Christian is the man who reasons that it is far better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong” (193). Oh friends, where is that Gospel-shaped gentleness? That sweet reasonableness that gladly yields your own rights and prefers to suffer wrong if it be for the benefit of others? That readiness, that eagerness to forgive someone who’s wronged you at the very first sign of repentance? Seventy times seven (Matt 18:22)! How can we who have been forgiven a debt of trillions upon trillions of dollars, throw our brothers and sisters into the debtor’s prison of our hearts for the twenty dollars that we’re owed (Matt 18:35)? No, GraceLife. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5), who surrendered the glories of Heaven itself in exchange for the abject degradation of death on a cross, so that He could be the Servant of all.


E. Happy Contentment


And quickly, number five: the one who manifests this gentleness to which we’re called is also marked by a happy contentment. It’s little wonder that immediately following this section on spiritual stability, Paul takes up the subject of contentment in Philippians 4:10 to 14. Again, for the one who is relentlessly pursuing his joy in the Lord, this only makes sense. If we have fastened our affections on the glory of God in the face of Christ, and if in salvation the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to behold and feast upon that glory, where is dissatisfaction going to come from? The gentle Christian is happily content.


Spurgeon says, “If he can have God’s face shining upon him, he cares little whether it is hills or valleys upon which he walks.” And as the hymn says: “O while Thou dost smile upon me, / God of wisdom, love, and might, / Foes may hate and friends disown me; / Show Thy face and all is bright.” The content Christian is the gentle Christian.


What a wealth of truth stored up into this one word, gentleness. Let me summarize all we’ve said by quoting Pastor John. Seeking to put his finger on what Paul means by this gentleness of spirit, he sums it all up when he writes, “Perhaps the best corresponding English word is graciousness—the graciousness of humility; the humble graciousness that produces the patience to endure injustice, disgrace, and mistreatment without retaliation, bitterness, or vengeance. It is contentment” (MacArthur, 276).


II. The Scope


And so I trust that we better understand Paul’s command for God’s people to be dominated by a gentle, forbearing, gracious spirit. The question I want to ask now is: “To whom are we commanded to show such gentleness? What is to be the scope of our evident gentleness?” Now, so far I’ve focused my application pretty exclusively on how such gentleness is to manifest in the life of the church. And that is vitally important. As I’ve said, if the church is to have any hope of standing firm in the Lord against the outside pressures of a hostile culture, the people of God must be devoted to dealing in gentleness with one another.


But Paul casts a wider scope on this command. Look again at Philippians 4:5. He writes, “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men.” And so this reasonable flexibility, this temperate gentleness, this patient forbearance, this willing surrender of our own rights, and this happy contentment is to be made manifest not only to your family; not only to a certain group of Christian friends who are very easy for you to get along with; not even only to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ—but your gentle spirit is to be made evident and manifest to all people.


And if that’s the case, that means we are to manifest this gentleness in all the spheres of our life before unbelievers. We are to let our gentle spirit be evident to our families. Some of you come from families in which not every member of your household is a follower of Christ. And all of us have extended family members that don’t yet believe in Jesus. For those of you with young children, you have a built-in, in-house mission field. But especially those of you who labor to follow Christ in an unequally yoked marriage, or those of you who have grown children who are unbelievers, I can’t speak emphatically enough as to how vital it is to let your gentle spirit be made manifest to them. To be sure, your holy life is not sufficient to win sinners to Christ; faith comes by hearing, Paul says, and hearing by the word—the message—about Christ, Romans 10:17. Your life, no matter how holy and chaste and praiseworthy, is not the Gospel. However, there is no greater way to undermine your own preaching of the Gospel to your family than to un-say with your lives what you say with your lips. And so all of the flexibility, all of the gentle demeanor, all of the patience—and all we talked about earlier—all of that must be aimed at them, to show them that the Gospel has the power not only to justify, but also to sanctify; that it’s not just talk, but that Christ really has the power to transform your life.


We also must manifest gentleness before unbelievers in our profession. So many of you work under unreasonable employers, and the Apostle Peter’s admonition to servants is apposite to you. 1 Peter 2:18, Peter writes, “Servants,” and we could insert, “and employees,” “be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under”—or patiently forbears—“sorrows when suffering unjustly.” For those employers who are not “good and gentle,” they are to learn gentleness by the example they see in their employees who name the name of Christ.


And your co-workers—those who can’t stand the fact that they have to work with someone so archaic and xenophobic as to believe that the only way to get to heaven and avoid the punishment of hell is to believe in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. They can’t stand the fact that they have to work with someone so bigoted and narrow-minded as to deny homosexuals the same “right” to “marriage” as heterosexuals enjoy. But friends, they expect narrow-minded bigots to be inflexible and harsh, aggressive, and always insisting upon their own way. But when they see people who stand immovable upon their convictions on the one hand, but on the other hand respond to trials with joy and thanksgiving, who when they are reviled don’t revile in return, who turn the other cheek and even repay evil with good—when they see those people, they have no idea what to do with them! Bigots! Narrow-minded exclusivists! And yet gentle, pliable, patient, always in control of their temper, content even amidst mistreatment. Now there’s a way to shine like stars in the darkness of the night sky, Philippians 2:15. There’s a way to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (Titus 2:10)!


And there are numerous other arenas of life in which this applies—the way we interact with our neighbors, with repair men who providentially have occasion to meet us in our homes, with cashiers at the supermarket, and so on. But I also need to mention the need for gentleness in our contending for the faith. As we take the Gospel to our friends and neighbors, and as we labor in the fight for truth against false doctrine, we must indeed contend for the faith, but we need never be contentious for the faith. I can’t think of anything more incongruous than a follower of Christ dealing harshly with someone they hope to see saved by the Gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones laments, “How difficult it is to differentiate between holy zeal or righteous indignation, and the mere expression of a harsh, critical, judgmental spirit” (Life of Peace, 162). We need to search our hearts and examine our lives, friends. Let your gentle spirit—not your critical spirit—be made known to all men—let gentleness be your reputation, not criticism—especially before those whom you mean to win to Christ.


Now, you may say, “Mike, if I’m gentle with all people, especially to those who don’t belong to the household of faith, who are hostile to Christ and who would love nothing more than to make life difficult for me—if I patiently endure ill-treatment from them, they’re going to learn fast that they can go on abusing me without fear of retaliation! I’ve got to stick up for myself! I don’t want to be a doormat!”


Well my friend that is not lost on the Apostle Paul. He was very much aware of the Philippians’ situation as they labored under opposition and through conflict with the hostile pagan world. But it is precisely those hostile neighbors that Paul has in mind as he pens this command. They are watching the way these Christians respond to the pressures that they bring upon them. And fully cognizant of this hostile environment, Paul commands the people of God to be marked not only by a constant joyfulness, but by an eminent and demonstrable gentleness to all people—inside and outside the church—even and especially when we are mistreated by them (cf. Martin).


III. The Ground


“But Paul! How can you say that?! How in the world are we supposed to let our gentle and forbearing spirit be evident to all men—even those that would take advantage of us?” And how thankful we can be 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 verse 4 he did not 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 does not merely command us, “Let your gentle spirit be made known to all men,” but also adds, “the Lord is near” (cf. MLJ, Life of Peace, 156).


And that brings us to our third point. We’ve examined the command in detail, and we’ve considered the scope of the command just a moment ago. But now we come to the ground and incentive for our gentleness. How can we 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.


Now there is some debate between the commentators regarding precisely what Paul meant when he said, “The Lord is near.” Does he mean the Lord is near in a spatial sense—the way we say, “That piano is near”? 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 verse 18, which says, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” and treasuring the truth of Psalm 73:28, which says, “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, “Shepherds’ Conference is near”? That Christ will return soon, and will bring vengeance upon the enemies of His people and will bring all His good promises to His people to pass. Those who take this view note the similar exhortations from James, who says, “You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near,” James 5:8, and from Peter, who writes, “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 and 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. He writes, “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” (Hendriksen, 194).


And 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. And so I just have four brief reflections on the coming of the Lord that will strengthen us to endure all manner of affliction with gentleness.


A. 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?


Our Lord taught us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). If your treasure is stored up here on an earth that is fast passing away, and someone attacks your treasure, of course you’re going to get anxious, uneasy, worked up, and easily irritated and agitated. But if all your treasure, all your satisfaction, is in heaven—if your entire life is hidden with Christ in God, Colossians 3:3—then nothing can shake you, because your treasure is hidden in the safest storehouse there is: God Himself. And when nothing can touch your treasure, you become free, like those early Hebrew Christians, to joyfully accept the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one” (Heb 10:34). Oh friends, the Lord is near! Let your gentleness be made manifest to all people!


B. Christ is Judge


Secondly, the certain and soon coming of Christ reminds us that Christ Himself is the Judge of the world. Now, not only does this mean that we are not the judge of others, but it also means that we are subject to the Lord’s judgment. And though the world likes to rip this verse from its context and throw it our face, we must remember its proper interpretation. Matthew 7 verse 2: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” And so when you are tempted to lose patience, when you cannot bear to forbear, when you are tempted to condemn others in harshness, devoid of the gentleness that characterized and does still characterize your Lord, remember that you yourself are a man or woman under His authority—that you yourself will be subject to His judgment. And given how sinful you know yourself to be, you deeply desire Him to be so forbearing and patient with you. This will teach you to be gentle with others.


C. Vengeance is His


And very related to that, number three: the Lord’s soon coming reminds us that He alone has the right to exact vengeance. Paul speaks so directly in Romans 12:19 when he says, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” And in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, Paul describes that vengeance specifically as it relates to the affliction of the church. He writes, “For…it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” And friends, so far from delighting in their destruction, these thoughts ought to make you tremble and weep for them. And as that godly compassion arises in your heart, gentleness has already begun to operate (Life of Peace, 163).


D. Our Reward is Certain


And finally, the most glorious reality that the Lord’s promised coming confronts us with is that our reward is certain. In Hebrews 11:25, the writer tells us that Moses chose to endure ill-treatment with the people of God rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin—that he considered the reproach of Christ to be greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. And then it tells us why he was able to do that: “for he was looking to the reward.” Moses was able to raise the eyes of his heart above the passing pleasures of this transient, fading world, and fix them on his unseen Savior, and the glory that was to be his when he would be taken to heaven to live in fellowship with Him!


Friends, there is such joy and such glory wrapped up in the Person of Christ, who is sure to be yours at His coming—which is only a few short moments away! “Therefore we do not lose heart!” Though our outer man patiently forbears with gentleness the abuse of those both inside and outside the church, “yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” When? Under what circumstances? “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16–18). And so Peter exhorts the suffering Christians in the churches under his care, “fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ”! Set your heart on that day! Fix your eyes on that day! Think of what it will be to spend eternity with Jesus in just a short while—to enter into the joy of your Master and enjoy His glorious presence and enjoy the eternal pleasures that are at His right hand (Ps 16:11)! And let those thoughts engender in you the gentleness of spirit that characterizes the true children of God, and let it be evident to all men.




So with all of the opposition that you face from an increasingly secular, increasingly hostile society, how are you, as the church, going to stand firm in the Lord? You’re going to be diligently devoted to unity, passionately committed to pursuing your greatest joy in the Lord, and you’re going to let your gentle and forbearing spirit be made manifest to all people—no matter the cost—because the Lord is near. And He—and He alone!—is our great reward.