Summary: This message examines Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:5 - the Lord is near” (NRSV) to discern in what manner he intended to raise awareness about the return of Christ.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5)
When you read Paul’s words in Philippians 4:5 that ‘The Lord is near’ (NRSV), what is your reaction? Are you reassured that your Savior is in your proximity? Are you unsettle about the timing of this prophecy? Are you uncertain about whether ‘near’ refers to geography or eschatology? Well if your response to any of three questions was ‘yes, no or maybe’, then congratulations, you are completely right!
This passage has been the subject of theological studies by quite a few scholars. A review of previous studies on this topic suggests a lack of unanimity on how to interpret Paul’s theological intent in using ‘near’/engus (Ýããýò) Persons such as Stephen Fowl, Jean-Francas Collange, Fred B. Craddock, Howard Marshall, Gordon D. Fee, Markus Bockmuehl, Bonnie Thurston and Judith Ryan, John J. Greehy, Morna D. Hooker, Peter T. O’Brien, Gerald F. Hawthorne and Homer A. Kent, Jr. interpreted ‘near’ as expressing the Lord’s presence and as a sense of expectation. Persons such as Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown, Moises Silva, Jac J. Muller, Paul A. Holloway, Alfred Plummer, Ernest F. Scott and Robert Wicks interpreted ‘near’ as expressing only a sense of expectation. Robert Murray and Ivan Havener interpreted ‘near’ as expressing only the Lord’s presence. Hence, while not achieving interpretive unanimity, there is a consensus among these randomly selected sources that ‘near’/engus refers to at least a sense of expectation. The differences among the scholars are in whether the authorial intent was a single or double entendre.
Using these views, let us dig deeper to better assess whether the best rendering of Philippians 4:5 should: (1) reinforce a sense of urgency to engage in action, (2) bring calm to those persons who were pressured by Judaizers and lawlessness (Phil. 3:2-3,18-19), or (3) both.
From an intra-textual examination of Philippians, we see ample evidence in the epistle to suggest that Philippians had an eschatological undercurrent (Phil. 1:6; 2:10-11, 16; 3:10-11, 20-21; 4:4). Although the primary emphasis of the epistle was a call to joy, unity, and peace, end-time concepts (i.e., the return of Christ, the resurrection of believers and the Book of Life) were mentioned six times. Hence, an eschatological interpretation of ‘near’/engus would be consistent with the corpus of the letter.
From an inter-textual examination of the New Testament usage of ‘near’/engus (and its conjugated forms such as engizo), we see a high degree of variability in the rendering of the word. For example, three times in the 19th chapter of Luke (19:29, 37, 41) engizo was used in reference to geography. However, three times in the 21st chapter, engizo was used in reference to chronology (Luke 21:8, 20, 28). Likewise, in James’ epistle, engizo was used to describe emotional proximity and geographical proximity (James 4: 8 and 5:8). This same couplet of contrast was also seen in the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 7:19, 10:25).
Interestingly, the dual intent of ‘near’/engus appeared in the gospels as a series of four intentionally ambiguous declarations concerning the nearness of the kingdom of God. First, John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom of God was ‘at hand’ prior to the baptism of Christ. Second, after Christ began his public ministry, his primary message was that the kingdom was ‘at hand’ (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). Third, Christ commissioned the twelve apostles (Matthew 10:7, Luke 9:2) to preach that the kingdom was ‘at hand’. Fourth, the seventy disciples (Luke 10: 9, 11) were sent out to announce that the kingdom was ‘at hand’. The commonality of these four proclamations was that: (1) the first coming of the messiah was fulfilled, and that (2) he came to place the kingdom within their hearts. Hence, the kingdom of God as revealed in Christ, had not only arrived, but was also accessible. For a Roman-governed Jewish audience seeking a conquering messiah, this dual meaning would have tempered their expectancy and given them peace in the midst of their occupation.
In effect, the usage of ‘near’/engus in the epistles was typically either a geographical reference or an eschatological reference. However, in the gospels, ‘near’/engus often referred to both geography and eschatology. Using this pattern as a guide, the logical judgment concerning ‘near’/engus in Philippians 4:5 is that Paul’s intent was to emphasize one of the two renderings, but not both.
Therefore, while the word ‘near’/engus in Philippians 4:5 encapsulates the hope of Christ’s return, and the preciousness of Christ’s presence, the context of the epistle leans toward an eschatological intent. Philippians, as a whole, does not address Christ’s presence through the work of the Holy Spirit. The epistle does not suggest that the local assembly was severely persecuted for its witness, and therefore saw divine comfort as a top priority. Rather, the concern in the 1st century (as noted in the Thessalonica epistles) was the return of Christ. In fact, ‘marana tha’ (O’ Lord Come – 1st Corinthians 16:22), was a popular Aramaic phrase used on in early Christian liturgy; Aramaic was the common language of Christ, his Jewish community, and of the first Christians.