If you are like me, you’ve had a certain reaction to the endings of some NT epistles. It is common for Paul’s epistles to end with a number of exhortations. When we read them, we might conclude that they’re just random commands. They sometimes seem like scattered pellets from a shotgun. They don’t seem to have any connection with the things written earlier in the book. We think Paul is concluding his letter with a bunch of unconnected demands that are essentially general in nature.
An example of this is found at the end of Philippians. In 4:2-5, Paul has three exhortations. He tells two women to be of the same mind. Then, it appears that he tells everybody in the church to rejoice. Then, in another apparently universal command, Paul tells the readers to show their gentleness to others.
We might think that in the first command Paul is addressing something completely new. There are two women in the church who are fighting over something, and before Paul ends this letter he says, “Oh, by the way, and before I forget, can’t you two women just get along?”
My guess is that with the last two of these exhortations, most readers also interpret them in a way that has nothing to do with the rest of the book. Christians are to rejoice in that they are to be full of joy, or happy. Younger Christians, especially, might think of being excited when singing Christian music; we should make a joyful noise.
Many readers might be at a loss concerning Paul’s command to be gentle. What does that mean? How do I show that? Once again, many would try to answer these questions without even considering what the Book of Philippians is about. Being gentle might bring to mind petting a puppy, so Paul is saying that we as believers should avoid being cruel to others. It’s a good sentiment, and nobody could argue that it isn’t a noble thing to do, but it does seem awfully random. Paul might just as well have expressed another good sentiment by saying, for example, that Christians ought to return things they borrow in a timely manner.
However, I don’t think these are random commands at all. I think they are connected to one another and that they also are connected to what Paul has taught in the book as a whole. The Book of Philippians is about a church that supports Paul’s work on the mission field. They are his partners, and he wants them to continue working together as a body of believers in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. They are to stand firm, united in that work (1:27: 4:1).
After telling them to do that (4:1), Paul gives the first of our three exhortations. These two women are not working together. They are not “of the same mind.” Instead of a random command, this idea is central to the book. The phrase occurs 10 times in Philippians (e.g., 2:2, 5; 3:15, 16). They are to have the mind of Christ, serving one another in their work together. This mind is one of humility and service. Whatever disagreement these two ladies have is preventing them from doing what Paul has taught this church to do.
The command “to rejoice” is intimately connected to this. Their rejoicing is to be “in the Lord.” The verb occurs at least 9 times in the book. As believers, they are citizens of Christ’s coming kingdom. Together, they are working for rewards in that kingdom (3:14-15, 20). Instead of fighting with each other, they should remember the awesome privilege of who they are and the important work they are to be united in doing.
Not surprisingly, the command to show gentleness is not random at all. The word means to be tolerant, kind, or merciful. As members of the body work and serve together, and as they serve one another, there will be many times when such qualities are needed in order for the work to continue. Whatever dispute these two women had would become irrelevant if they were tolerant, kind, and merciful toward each other.
These three exhortations fit perfectly at the end of this book. Any group of believers who take the teachings of Philippians seriously will see how appropriate these exhortations are. As members of the body, we are to have the same mind. This is the mind of Christ, which manifests itself in humble service. This service is done with joy because the King is coming soon and will reward our service to Him. Until He does, we are to be kind and merciful to our fellow servants.