Over the last two weeks, we’ve been considering Paul’s command to “let your gentle spirit be known to all men” (Philippians 4:5). We considered five characteristics of that gentleness, and then took some time to consider the scope of that command, noting that we are not only to be gentle with fellow Christians, but also with those who are enemies of the Gospel.
And we ended last time asking how could possibly do that? let our gentle and forbearing spirit be evident to all people—even those that would take advantage of us?
And we can be so thankful 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 Philippians 4:4 he didn’t 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 doesn’t merely command us, “Let your gentle spirit be made known to all men,” but also adds, “the Lord is near.”
So, how is it that we can 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.
Near in Space, or Near in Time?
But what precisely does he mean? Is he saying that the Lord is near in a spatial sense—the way we say, “The mouse is near my computer”? Is his point 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 34:18: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” and treasuring the truth of Psalm 73:28: “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, “Vacation time is near”? In this sense, his point would be that Christ will return soon, and will bring vengeance upon the enemies of His people and will bring all His good promises to pass. Those who take this view note the similar exhortation of James 5:8: “You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near,” and of 1 Peter 4:7: “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 3:20–21, 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: “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” (194).
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. To that end, I want to share with you four brief reflections on the coming of the Lord that will strengthen us to endure all manner of affliction with gentleness.
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 (Col 3:3)—then nothing can shake you, because your treasure is hidden in the safest storehouse there is: God Himself. Dear reader, the Lord is near! Let your gentleness be made manifest to all people.
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 Matthew 7:2 from its context and throw it our face, we must remember its proper interpretation: “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 (cf. 2 Cor 5:10). 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.
Vengeance is His
Very related to that, the Lord’s soon coming reminds us that He alone has the right to exact vengeance. Paul says it clearly: “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” (Rom 12:19). In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul describes that vengeance specifically as it relates to the affliction of the church: “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 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.
Our Reward is Certain
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” (1 Pet 1:13). 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 people.