Gentleness, Known to All (Phil 4:5)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in May, 2022*

Sermon Audio: Gentleness, Known to All (Phil 4:5)

“I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”

These famous words were written by the former British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, describing none other than leader of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain felt uneasy about the increasingly bellicose statements from Germany’s fiery leader who made it known that he intended to recapture the glory of the German empire, by force if need be. So, he flew to Germany three times in 1938 to meet with Hitler in person in the hopes of securing a guarantee that Hitler would not, in fact, invade the surrounding countries. With the Great War a mere 20 years in hindsight, Chamberlain knew that Germany’s ability to wreak devastation was considerable. 

Chamberlain’s approach towards Hitler was that of appeasement. He dealt delicately with the Fuhrer, hoping to charm him with kindness and patience. When Hitler made it known that—after already invading Austria–he intended to invade neighboring Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain’s response was to merely get an agreement from Hitler that after this, Hitler would go no further. Hitler agreed, but remained aloof, often showing up to meetings with Chamberlain hours late, or refusing to show up at all. During his visit to Munich, Chamberlain was able to get Hitler to sign an Anglo-German agreement that stated that Germany and Britain would not go to war against one another. As Chamberlain explained the agreement to Hitler, Hitler interjected enthusiastically that he supported this, and quickly signed his name. Chamberlain flew home from Munich to excited crowds, proudly holding the paper signed by both Hitler and himself up as proof that the nation was free from the threat of war. He proudly proclaimed that he had secured “a peace for our time” with his statecraft and delicacy with the German Fuhrer. When Hitler’s Foreign Minister expressed dismay at Hitler’s signing of the document, Hitler laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”

Ten months later, when Germany was on the eve of invading Poland, Britain warned them that if they were to do so, there would then be a state of war between them and Germany. Hitler instructed his generals to prepare for invasion telling them, “Our enemies are small worms. I saw them at Munich.”

History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain. He is routinely remembered as the man who was duped by Hitler; who treated a monster with gentleness, when he needed to be met with force. Of course, no one knew what we know now, no one could guess the kind of horrors that Hitler would be capable of. And yet, Chamberlain’s appeasement likely enabled Hitler to greater and greater success.

Christians are commanded to be gentle, we are told that it is the meek who are blessed and will inherit the earth. Does this, then, lead us to standing idly by when evil happens? How can Christians pursue gentleness in a fallen world?

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. – Phil 4:5

What is Gentleness?

Paul tells the Philippians to let their “gentleness”, their “reasonableness” to be known to everyone. The ESV has translated the word as “reasonableness,” but places a little note at the bottom that tells you that it could also be translated as “gentleness.” I think gentleness is the more accurate translation since this is how it is used most frequently throughout the New Testament (1 Tim 3:3; Tit 3:2; James 3:17; 1 Pet 2:18).  

What comes to your mind when you think of “gentleness”? Aristotle taught that “gentleness” was a virtue concerning the right approach to anger; the golden mean between the extreme of a quick temper and the other extreme of indifference towards injustice. 

Perhaps we tend to think of someone who is gentle as being someone who lacks strength, or as a friend from Texas puts it, someone who is “a little light in the loafers.” So, in the movie, when the bad guy shows up, there is always the lame boyfriend who is terrified and just says, “Now, now, let’s be reasonable here…” but won’t actually do anything to protect the girl, and then there is the strong, cool macho-man who punches the bad guy, picks the girl up off the ground, and they ride off into the sunset. Now, that’s kind of a ridiculous example, but is gentleness being the lame boyfriend? Being Grima Wormtongue, not King Theoden? I don’t think so. Let’s examine the word a little more.

Dictionaries define the word (ἐπιεικής) as, “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant,” (BDAG). It is, “in contrast to the attitude that demands that rights, including one’s own, should be upheld at all costs,” (NIDNT). John Calvin defines it as: “…when we are not easily moved by injuries, when we are not easily annoyed by adversity.” So, that tells us that gentleness is not about the absence of power, but about the presence of fortitude and humility. Having enough to strength to go without, to be willing to deny yourself, to not be so vain that you can swallow injuries without returning them in kind. When the proverbial plate of treats are being passed around and you realize that to take one would require others to go without, you abstain without drawing any attention to yourself, without embarrassing the host. When the offense comes, you don’t worry about your ego or reputation. 

The term assumes the presence of conflict or hardship, but responds with grace and self-denial, not aggression or selfishness.

I’ve been in one fight my entire life and do you know what it was over? Sitting in a chair. It was eighth grade and some kid was sitting in my chair. And I, very rudely, told him he needed to move. And he said make me. And our fragile little egos just couldn’t handle it, so we started hitting each other. Neither of us understood what gentleness was.

The term is frequently used in contrast with being a quarrelsome person. Elders are to be, “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome,” (1 Tim 3:3; cf. 2 Tim 2:24). Paul explains to Titus a command for all Christians: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” (Tit 3:1-2). 

It is Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” and “do not resist the evil one” virtue. Think of all the mattress commercials you have seen where someone places a glass of wine on the mattress, and then drops a bowling ball next to it. The mattress absorbs the shock and the glass of wine is unmoved. That is what the people of God are to be like. That is what we are to be known to all for. We are not to be brittle or unyielding. We are not to have our fingers hovering over the proverbial detonation trigger, waiting for the slightest provocation before BOOM. 

The greatest definition, however, of what gentleness looks like would be to look at our Lord Himself. As Dane Ortlund helpfully pointed out in his book Gentle and Lowly, there is only one place in all four gospels where Jesus tells us what His heart is like, and when He does, He explains that it is “gentle and lowly.” So the entire ministry and life of Jesus is itself a billboard for what gentleness is.

This tells us that gentleness is not the absence of power. Gentleness does not equal weakness; Jesus had all the power in the world. Jesus explains that no one takes his life from him, but He lays it down of His own accord (John 10:18).

This tells us that gentleness is not the absence of convictions. Jesus had strong convictions that He was unyielding on. When arguing with the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus replies, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God,” (Matt 22:29).

This tells us that gentleness is not permissiveness or just an aversion to conflict. Jesus was willing to enter into conflict, He was willing to call out sin. Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they watched Jesus flip tables in the temple? As they heard Him curse the Pharisees, calling them vipers and white-washed tombs? The same apostle who wrote this passage in Philippians also wrote, “By rejecting [the faith], some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme,” (1 Tim 1:19-20).

Gentleness is Jesus stooping down to the woman caught in adultery and saying, “I don’t condemn you, go forth and sin no more.” Gentleness is Jesus seeking Peter out and restoring him after he denied Jesus three times.  

Gentleness is how Jesus treats you, dear Christian. So, gentleness is not insisting, but being kind and yielding, not demanding one’s own rights, not being easily injured by offense. How have you offended and wounded Christ? Friend, just think this last week. In what ways have sinned against your Lord with your words, your time, your money, your thoughts, your actions, your inaction, your desires? None of us here could look back and say, “I have treated Jesus the way He deserves to be treated perfectly.” And yet, how does our Lord treat us?

Non-Christian, Jesus shows his tenderness and gentleness to you through His offer of salvation. If you will admit that you are a sinner in need of help, Jesus will freely and unquestioningly offer it to you. He will atone for your sins, and wash them away in a moment. His death on the cross will serve a substitute for your own death, and you will live in Him forever.

Christian, Jesus shows you his gentleness by not treating you the way your sins deserve. He has brought you into His family, given you an inheritance, and called you “friend.” He has paid the debt you owe and promised to never leave you nor forsake you. So, despite your sins and your offenses to our Lord, He remains gentle and kind towards you.

Why Gentleness?

Paul says we are to let our gentleness be known to all. In other words, gentleness should mark us so evidently that it is our reputation around town. Now, why that? Why not our self-control? Why not our holiness? Why not our knowledge? Why gentleness? 

I think, likely, because gentleness, true gentleness, is so rare in the world. When Jesus is arrested, what does Peter do? He draws a sword and attacks. And then when Jesus rebukes him and tells him to put his sword away, what does Peter do? He runs away! That is a great picture of the two extremes we usually practice when conflict arises. We lash out, or we flee. Fight or flight.

Sometimes we will use gentleness, but it is really just a means to an end, a way to try to guilt people with our kindness. If we are nice enough, then people will adopt our view, change their mind, etc. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But that isn’t real gentleness. If we are only gentle with others so that they change, then we are just manipulating them. And we know when we are using fake gentleness by how we respond to when they don’t change. If we think, Well, gentleness didn’t work. Guess I need to be more aggressive now, then we know that we were never being gentle in the first place. 

I think there are a few reasons why Paul includes the phrase, “The Lord is at hand.” Part of the reason has to do with what he is going to explain in the next few verses about anxiety. But I think there are two reasons, in the Lord’s providence, it has been included in this verse. 

One is that the phrase refers to the imminent return of Christ. Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. We can be gentle with all, swallowing offenses, because we know that vengeance belongs to the Lord, not us.

A second, however, is that the phrase serves as a double entendre: The Lord is at hand could refer to the nearness of the Lord in time (the day of the Lord is near), but it could also refer to the presence.

When we are willing to take an offense and still respond with grace, with gentleness, when we meet rudeness and selfishness with kindness and the offer of love, that demonstrates the presence of God in our life in a way few other things will. We want, above all, Jesus to be known in our community, and nothing demonstrates the heart of Jesus like gentleness and lowliness. What we have received from the Lord should be evident to others.

You know the parable of the unforgiving servant. The man who owed the king an exorbitant sum of money that he could never repay. The man, we are told, is a servant. He has no social standing whatsoever. And yet, wonder of wonders, the king forgives his great debt. But then, here is what we are told:

But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:28-35)

How can a man who has been forgiven of so much not extend the same mercy to others? Especially when the debt is of such small account compared to what he was forgiven of? Jesus’ point here is to show that those who realize what they have been forgiven of will forgive others. Those who have received the gentle mercies of the Lord will extend gentle mercies to others.

How Can We Be Gentle?

1.     Receive one another as Christ has received us. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God,” (Rom 15:7). How has Christ received you? How gentle has our Lord been with us?

2.     As much as it depends on you, be at peace with all. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18). The qualifier at the beginning of that verse informs us that there are times where it will not be possible to live at peace with all. As far as it depends on us, as much as we can strive to while keeping our Christian convictions, we should strive to be at peace with all. But when those around us redefine “gentleness” in such a way that we must compromise on our convictions in order to be known as “gentle” in their eyes, then we must be willing to lose that moniker.

3.     Suffer well. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you,” (1 Pet 4:12-14). Don’t be surprised when you suffer. Don’t think, “Well, I am suffering–something is wrong, I need to stop being so gentle and need to start being more punchy.” The path of the Christian life commonly walks through fiery trials and opposition. Those trials do not write us a blank check to stop pursuing gentleness, to adopt a worldly combativeness.

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