Date: 02 Apr 2017
Text: Philippians 4:4-9
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote one of the most famous novels in the world, a book titled War and Peace. It is a huge novel that deals with Russian society in the period 1805 to 1820. Rather interestingly, it is one of those books that many have tried to read only to never get past the first 3 or 4 pages and given that most editions contain approximately 1300 pages, that isn’t too good. The Peace of the title deals with the grand life of Russian nobility whilst the War part deals with the Russian-French war and both parts have a significant role in the development of the story.
That seems to me to sum up life in the 21st century, a mixture of war and peace. Why should that be? Why should there be so many wars when the vast majority of the world’s population want nothing more than to live in peace?
If you don’t agree with me then just look around at what is happening in the world. All we ever seem to see is conflict. In the world of politics there is angry disagreement between the UK and the EU, an anger that will only increase now that Article 50 has been invoked. Nearer to home we have the political arguments taking place between the UK Government and the Scottish Government over another independence referendum. When we look further afield towards East Africa we see almost constant civil wars with the starving civilians being the ones who suffer the most. Then there is the conflict in Iraq and Syria that will probably take years to come to a conclusion and where, once again, the civilians are the ones who suffer the most. There never seems to be a time when the world is at peace.
Here in our own country we have known armed conflict for many years. Over a lengthy period of time the UK seemed to be under constant attack from the IRA whose sole objective was to form a united Ireland via the bomb and the bullet. When that didn’t work, and only then, they sought to enter a Peace Agreement and heroes of the armed struggle suddenly became heroes of the peace. Throughout these troubles it was always the innocent civilians who suffered the most. Just when you may have thought peace had arrived, we find ourselves confronted by Islamic terrorism. Whether or not the perpetrators represent any particular brand of Islam or not, the vast majority of terrorist acts in recent years have been carried out by Muslims. Their aim is less clear than that of the IRA but causes more harm to innocent people than to Governments themselves.
But, how does all this affect us? Does it disturb our equilibrium? And what about our faith, is that affected by all this conflict?
There can be little doubt that the world needs peace; peace between countries, tribes, politicians and religious groups. The question is, how can that peace be achieved, how can all these conflicts be resolved?
As ever the answers to those questions can be found in scripture. The New Testament is littered with comments from Jesus and the Apostles about peace. The main message of these comments is that if we come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, then we will know true peace. In John 14:6-7 Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." He had earlier told the Jewish believers in John 8:31-32 that, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Later in John 14 we read of Jesus telling His disciples that He had to go away but promising to send the Holy Spirit to be with until He returned. On that occasion He said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (John 14:27).
That is how we as individuals can receive true peace, from and through Jesus Christ by coming to faith in Him and acknowledging Him as our Saviour. If more were to come to know Him as their Saviour then I am convinced that we would see more peace in our world as a whole.
The passage in Philippians that I read earlier contains two paragraphs that both refer to peace albeit in slightly different ways. The peace that Paul talks of is both peace from God and peace with God and that peace is vital for us as we live our daily lives.
With all this conflict in the world, whether political or armed, it is all too easy to become despondent and feel no joy. In this first paragraph which covers 4:4-7, Paul is encouraging us all to rejoice in knowing Jesus. Not only does he say it once but he repeats himself; just see what he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4). If we know Jesus then we have the peace that only He can bring and we have every reason to rejoice. Yes, we may be surrounded by conflicts but because we know Jesus, we need not be anxious about anything. When, or if, we become anxious or have special requests to make then Paul reminds us that “by prayer and petition...present your requests to God” (4:6). Paul reminds us that we should also come before God with thanksgiving, something that many of us singularly fail to do.
As we rejoice and as we come before God with our prayers we know that we have the “peace of God” within us. This is a peace that is difficult to understand and equally difficult to explain. That is simply because, as Paul clearly says, it is a peace “that transcends all understanding” (4:7); it is a peace that has to be experienced. Whilst peace is a fragile commodity that can easily be broken accidently or deliberately; that is not the case with the peace that we receive from God. It is a peace that is within us, within our hearts and it is planted there by our faith in Jesus and it will remain strong no matter what happens. Yes, we may stumble from time to time but God is always there to pick us up, dust us off and help us to start all over again. No amount of stumbling on our part though can damage that inner peace that we have because it comes from God. Compare that with the many peace agreements that have been agreed down the ages by politicians. Who can ever forget Mr Chamberlain returning from his talks with Herr Hitler in Berlin and clutching a piece of paper in his hand that guaranteed peace in our time? War followed only a few months later! The peace that God brings to us doesn’t last for only a few months but for all eternity.
Notice too how Paul finished off 4:7; this “peace of God” “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. From a spiritual point of view the peace that we have is permanently guarded by Jesus Himself. As believers in Christ we face constant attack from Satan and we need to be guarded from such attacks. It is this “peace of God” that does that guarding. It is there to help us resist the enemies of the cross of Jesus and the subsequent spiritual degeneration that can cause us to slip away.
In the two verses that make up the second paragraph, 4:8-9, Paul offers some closing encouragement and starts by listing eight qualities that he wants believers in Christ to put into practice. These all seem fairly obvious things to be or to do since Paul lists being true and noble, right and pure, lovely and admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. It would be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their faith, could put these attributes into practice as it would undoubtedly lead to a better world. Sadly that doesn’t ever seem to happen and it is only because as Christians we have the “peace of God” with us that we are able to put these things into practice as Paul requests. Some of these characteristics that Paul wants us to exhibit should be fairly obvious. In everything that we do we should be honest and always be truthful, after all we know Jesus Who is the truth. We should behave in such a way that no one can find fault with us and our behaviour should be regarded as admirable and praiseworthy. You could almost think of it as being a spiritual DBS/CRB check which we need to serve in various roles in the church and the community. Some translations of this verse tell us to be just, in other words we should exercise justice in all our dealings and treat people in the right way, never trying to deceive them or look down on them. Many of the attributes listed by Paul relate to our behaving in an honourable way. In 1853 the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, made a speech in which he said, “If peace cannot be maintained with honour, it is no longer peace”. If we truly have that “peace of God” within us then it behoves us to behave accordingly rather than lose that peace.
We should store all these thoughts in our minds and do as Paul urges which is to “think about such things” (4:8b). Thinking on these things will help us to be transformed into the sort of people that God wants us to be. Paul similarly urged the Romans to not follow the ways of the world but to be transformed when he said to them, “do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2). It is by adopting the characteristics that Paul has listed in 4:8 that we can be transformed not just by the renewing of our mind but by the renewing of our whole being.
Wherever Paul went whether for a long or a short visit, he was always anxious to set a good example to those who were already believers in Jesus as well as to those who were new believers. His trade was as a tentmaker and that enabled him to support himself when he needed to. You may recall from our studies so far in 2 Corinthians that as soon as he arrived in Corinth Paul worked as a tentmaker during the week and preached at the weekend. It was only when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia with a financial gift that Paul stopped working and concentrated on his ministry. We can read his thoughts on this subject in 2 Corinthians 11:9 when he said to the Corinthian believers, “...when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.”
Knowing that helps to put into context his comments in 4:9 when he tells the Philippians, and us, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice”. We all need role models, people we can look up to as being a good example as to how to live our lives. Paul was that role model whether he wanted to be or not. He did his utmost to represent Christ correctly and in doing so became a good example to all those who knew him. Paul put his faith into action in the best possible way and always worked hard to represent Jesus Christ in the right way. He wanted nothing more or less than for those in the churches he founded to follow his example and behave in the same way. Notice though, that final phrase of 4:9, where Paul tells us that if we do these things then “...the God of peace will be with you”.
He has already told us in 4:7 that as believers in Jesus we have the “peace of God” within us; and now he tells us that if we follow his guidance and advice then the “God of peace” will be with us. This is the one and same God, there are not two Gods, only one and He is the One Who is both within us and with us.
I started this sermon by talking about the wars and conflicts that are taking place around the world, not least within our own country. That all needed to be said but may have sounded negative and a bit on the dark side.
Hopefully though, the opening verse in this passage in Philippians 4 changed the negative to a positive and the darkness into light. No matter what is happening around us, we have a lot to rejoice about; we have eternal life with Jesus and, as Paul reminds us, we have the “peace of God” within us. When we follow Paul’s example and live out our faith by following his advice in 4:8 we also have with us the “God of peace”. That is the peace that the world needs; the peace of and from God that only Jesus can bring when we place our faith in Him.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we ignore the wars and conflicts all around us but that we remember God and the peace that only He can bring. Pray that the world that doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as Saviour will soon do so and know the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (4:7).
 The Times, “The Last Word”, 28 Mar 2017