Philippians 4:4-7 Be Gentle!

Sun, 31/01/2016 - 10:00 -- James Oakley

If you look at the world around us, there is lots that’s not right. There’s a great deal of unhappiness in the world. A great deal of aggression. And in increasing amount of anxiety.

When we last came together for a combined service, we looked together at Philippians chapter 4. Paul, who wrote this letter, is nearly at the end. And as he reaches the end, he has some general things to say to the Philippian Christians. Qualities that should be seen in any healthy Christian church, anywhere around the world. And yet at the same time, this short paragraph could only be part of the letter to the Philippians. It wouldn’t quite fit anywhere else in the Bible, because these qualities are so tied into the themes of the rest of the letter.

And so we saw that as Christians we are to be marked by joy, by gentleness, and by a commitment to prayer which is the antidote to anxiety. You may remember that I asked us the question: Which of these qualities do we most need to work on in our churches? Joy? Gentleness? Or prayerfulness?

Last time, we looked at the paradox that as Christians we are commanded to be joyful in all circumstances. And so today, we come to the quality of gentleness. Here is verse 5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

It’s a very short of verse to preach on. So there are a couple of temptations that I, as the preacher, need to avoid. With a short verse like this, it’s enormously tempting to decide that there’s not enough here to work out what Paul means, so I’ll just ignore the text and tell you all the things that I would like to say. That won’t do.

The other blind alley would be to do a word study. Look up this word gentleness, wherever it occurs in the Bible or other Greek literature, and give the range of meanings that this word could have. You might find that fascinating, or you might find it dull, but it would shed little light on what Paul means in this particular verse.

Let’s instead listen carefully to what Paul is saying to the Philippian Christians, and to us, in this short verse. The key will be the context, the rest of the letter. If we see how this quality of gentleness is found elsewhere in the letter to the Philippians, then will be on the right track for understanding what Paul is saying here.

Jesus the gentle

The place to begin is Philippians chapter 2. This exact word for gentleness does not occur anywhere else in Philippians, but it is used of Jesus in the letter of 2 Corinthians. What that gentleness looks like in him is described most clearly and most beautifully here in Philippians chapter 2.

Verse 5: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

For all eternity, Jesus has been equal to God his Father. Fully God, equal in dignity, in glory, worthy of all worship. Most human beings with only a fraction of that power and prestige would use it to order others around, to make themselves more comfortable, to further their own security and seniority.

What did Jesus do with it? He used it to become nothing. He didn’t cease to be God, but you’d never know it if you met him. He just looked like an ordinary human being. Not particularly wealthy. Not particularly attractive. Just normal.

But that was not the end of his downward journey. He was willing to die, even the humiliating death of crucifixion. And he did it for us. There was no other way that we could be forgiven for our sins. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. And the only way to do it was to become a human being, and then to die in our place.

That is the best example there is of gentleness. This is the pattern for us, as we seek to show gentleness to others. This is our motivation, that we are those Jesus has been incredibly gentle with, using his divinity to lift us out of hell and into heaven, at unimaginable cost to himself.

Jesus the gentle. And on the back of that, Paul says: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

So what does our gentleness look like? Let’s keep exploring this letter to find out. It affects our relationships. Our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with the unbelieving world.

Gentle towards the world

Let’s start with the unbelieving world.

One dimension of gentleness is a willingness to accept hardship, difficulty, suffering, even persecution. Without retaliating. Without panicking. But with a quiet trust that even then, God is in control.

That quality shines out very clearly in Philippians chapter 1. Paul writes this letter from prison. Any day now, he will find out whether he is to be released or executed.

How he handles this is quite remarkable. Have a look at chapter 1, verse 12: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.”

The one thing that matters to Paul is that Christ is preached, and that God is glorified. He can see that through his imprisonment: this is happening all the more. And so, as he says in verse 18, he is able to rejoice, even from his prison cell. And remember that it was in Philippi that he and Silas were in prison once before. And on that occasion, they were awake at midnight singing hymns of praise to God.

As the outside world throws its worst that Christians, we can respond with gentleness. Calmly living for God’s glory. Jesus put himself through some severe discomfort, and that’s understating it badly, because he wanted to see us saved. Paul shares that attitude. No matter how difficult life got for him because of his Christian witness, it is of no consequence to him as long as others are hearing of Jesus and being saved.

Of course, we know little of real persecution in this country. We mustn’t be glib about a subject that is a painful reality for brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. At our prayer meeting last week, we heard of a North Korean family whose father disappeared, and his grandmother made sure that all family Bibles were burnt, saving the lives of the rest of the family. We heard of Christian undergraduates in Kenya, targeted by Muslim gunmen, who only survived because large numbers of them uncharacteristically missed that months Christian union prayer meeting.

How do our brothers and sisters cope in such situations? How do they react back with gentleness? We daren’t imagine ourselves into their shoes, for fear that we would not react so well ourselves. But God prepares his people for such big challenges, by allowing us to react with gentleness in much smaller situations.

So let me talk for a moment about our church hall. Why is it taking so long to get permission to rebuild it? Is this people with prejudice, wishing to muzzle the voice and influence of a growing church? Or is it simply bureaucracy that has grown out of hand, and ceases to serve the community as it is supposed to? Or is something else going on all together? We may never know. But Paul would say to us: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” However painful this is, and boy does it hurt, God calls us to be like Jesus in our response. Never retaliating. Calmly trusting. Being more concerned with God’s glory than with our own very real hardships.

Persecution in this country may be small compared to many others. But we must be under no illusion: The Christian faith is becoming increasingly less welcome in modern Britain. The pace of change is quite alarming. Just this last week, we’ve heard of proposed changes to Ofsted that would see Scout groups and, yes, church Sunday schools becoming subject to inspections. Is what we teach fully in line with that thing that nobody ever defines, British values? It’s one small example. Plenty of influential people want Britain no longer to be founded on solidly Christian values. Some secularists would even welcome Islam into this country, precisely so that it can help dethrone Christianity from its outdated place. I suspect these secular thinkers don’t realise what a Trojan horse that is, and that secularism would be the next to fall after Christianity.

Now, you could quibble the details of the narrative. But what is clear is that if you wish to stand four square on the lordship of Jesus Christ, living for him, and teaching others what he taught, you will be less and less welcome as the years pass. If, in 20 years’ time, I was thrown into prison for fulfilling my calling to be a pastor and a watchman, how would I react? How would you react? Let your gentleness be evident to all.

Gentle towards the church

That’s the unbelieving world. Gentleness also affects how we relate to one another, fellow members of the church family.

Philippians contains both positive and negative examples. We see what gentleness looks like, and we see what church life looks like when gentleness is absent.

The negative example comes in chapter 1. We’ve seen that Paul is not fazed by being in prison. If it gets people talking about Jesus, spreading the good news, then that is a good thing. But in the process he gives us an ugly picture of life in the Philippian church.

“Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.”

Some within the church are using Paul’s absence as an opportunity to get themselves ahead. They are spreading the good news about Jesus, but their reason for doing so is the opportunity it gives them to manoeuver themselves into influential positions within the church.

Sadly, the Philippian church is not unique. Not everyone who contributes to the life of the church does so for the good of the whole, for the glory of God. Their contributions are still a good thing. But it’s not an example of the gentleness that Jesus showed to us. Jesus would never say: “how does my role within the church give me an opportunity to promote myself, all my agendas?” Christ’s example is to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of his church.

But this letter also contains positive examples. People such as Timothy: chapter 2, verse 19: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”

This is what gentleness looks like in the church.

These Sundays when we all come together, are a precious thing. It is encouraging to be part of a much larger gathering that is possible on any of our normal Sunday Services. It allows us to remain in contact with people we wouldn’t normally see; it sustains fellowship between our different congregations.

But it’s also hard work. Invariably, the style of the service is a hybrid of the different styles we would normally have distributed across a Sunday. Which means that for everyone here, there are parts of the service that are not done in quite the way they would like. And so we all give a bit, and take a bit, valuing our fellowship together above any right we think we have to have things done our own way.

The other Sundays of the year are also hard work. Amongst other things, there is the pressure of time. To fit in a number of services during the day requires give and take from everyone. Nobody has the start time, or the length of time available, that they would prefer. Instead, everyone gives a little, to make space for other people to meet and to worship. Nobody says that other people’s church services must give way so that they can have theirs.

This is gentleness in action. What do other members of the church family need? How can I serve God? What would best advance the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Gentleness within the church.

Gentleness with ourselves

There is a third sphere in which gentleness works itself out. That is with ourselves. Gentleness with ourselves. Let me explain.

This word, gentleness, is in the list of 9 “fruit of the spirit” in Galatians chapter 5. Joy is also there, which we looked at last time. But gentleness is closely related to its cousin in the list, self-control.

To be gentle is to be in control of oneself. It is the opposite of being indulgent, acting on impulse, living out whatever our bodily desires urge us to do.

Here is Philippians chapter 3, verse 18: “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

When Jesus was gentle towards us, he saved us. Not so that we might then continue living selfishly, hurting ourselves and others in the process. But to change us, to transform us, to make us like him.

And although Jesus humbled himself to death, he did not stay dead. Instead, God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at his name every knee would bow, and every tongue confess. Jesus Christ is Lord. One day, he will bring everything in the universe under his control. In the meantime, we are those who gladly bring ourselves under his control. And that means bringing ourselves under our control.

In Paul’s day, there were people who lived for their own desires. It is the same in our own day. You can tell them by their mantras. “You must be true to yourself. If it feels good, you must do it. Only you can know what is right for you.” You will find these views even within the Christian church. “It is not the place of Jesus to tell you what is right or wrong. You will know how to be true to yourself. All Jesus left us, so we are told, is the general principle to love others.” But even then, we must each define love for ourselves.

But our citizenship is in heaven. We are waiting for Jesus to return from heaven, to finish his work of saving us. And in the meantime we live for him, calmly working out what behaviour would be pleasing to him. We don’t have to guess. We’re not in the dark. If we read our Bibles, Jesus will speak to us and tell us what pleases him. And so we bring everything under his control.

This is part of what gentleness entails. It is how we relate to ourselves. Not living in passionately impulsive ways. But asking what brings most glory to Jesus. The same question we asked as we face hardship and suffering. The same question we asked as we relate to one another. What would Jesus want? What helps others to see just how great he is?


Joy. Gentleness. Prayer.

If you are here this morning as a follower of Jesus, as a Christian, which aspect of gentleness do you most need to work on? Is it the way you relate to the unbelieving world? The way you relate to others in the church family? Or the way you relate to yourself, and to your desires?

Every week we have some here who are still looking into the claims of Jesus. In a world marked by sadness, aggressiveness, and anxiety, isn’t the gentleness of Jesus a beautifully attractive alternative? It is not a weak and insipid gentleness. It is him, using his almighty power and strength, to die for us, to serve us. And it’s a gentleness that he then cultivates amongst his followers.

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