By Mike Willis
A second prescription for good spiritual health in the face of bleak circumstances is given in Philippians 4:5 – “Let your moderation be known unto all men.”
The word “moderation” is a translation of the Greek adjective epieikes. To understand what character trait Paul is commanding demands that we do a word study. The word is used in a legal sense in secular Greek. It refers to the ability to set aside the letter of the law in order to give special consideration to mitigating circumstances in settling affairs (see Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 11:589). The word points to a man who has the letter of the law on his side but who does not insist that the demands of the letter of the law be met because of his moderate disposition and considerate leniency.
R.C. Trench emphasized that the word “expresses exactly that moderation which recognizes the impossibility of cleaving to all formal law, of anticipating and providing for all cases that will emerge, and present themselves to it for decision; which, with this, recognizes the danger that ever waits upon the assertion of legal rights, lest they should be pushed into moral wrongs … which, therefore, urges not its own rights to the uttermost, but, going back in part or in the whole from these, rectifies and redresses the injustices of justice” (Synonyms of the New Testament 154).
William Barclay commented along the same line:
The basic and the fundamental thing about epieikeia is that it goes back to God. If God stood on His rights, if God applied to us nothing but the rigid standards of law, where would we be? God is the supreme example of one who is epieikes and who deals with others with epieikeia.
It may be hard to translate this word, but it is not hard to see the clamant need of the quality which it describes. We live in a society where men insist on standing on their legal rights, where they will do only what they are compelled to do, and where they desire to make others do all that they can compel them to do. Again and again we have seen congregations torn by strife and reduced to tragic unhappiness because men and women, committees and courts stood on the letter of the law (A New Testament Wordbook 39).
As I read these definitions, I remember the parable of the two debtors in Matthew 18:23-35. The parable relates that a lord had a debtor who owed him 10,000 talents. He commanded that the debtor and his family be sold as slaves. When the debtor asked for compassion, the lord forgave him his debt. Later this debtor met a fellow slave who owed him 100 pence. He demanded that his fellow servant pay his debt. He fellow servant asked for mercy and time to repay, using the same words as the man who had owed 10,000 talents had used in asking mercy from his lord. The man refused to show mercy; he had his fellow servant cast into prison until the debt was paid. Of course, this man was exacting the letter of the law. Nevertheless, the Lord condemned him, using this as an example to teach us to forgive others even as God has forgiven us.
The shorter definitions of the word include such descriptions of the character trait commanded by moderation as follows: “mildness, gentleness, fairness, equitable, fair mild” (Thayer 238), “clemency, gentleness, graciousness . . . yielding, gentle, kind, your forbearing spirit” (Arndt and Gingrich 292). Some commentaries add such comments as the following:
Macknight: Moderation means that meekness under provocation, readiness to forgive injuries, equity in the management of business, candor in judging of the characters and actions of others, sweetness of disposition, and entire government of the passions (Philippians 465).
A.T. Robertson: “your gentleness,” “your sweet reasonableness” (IV:459).
Kenneth Wuest: not being unduly rigorous, being satisfied with less than one’s due, sweet reasonableness, forbearance (11:109).
Fritz Rienecker: reasonableness in judging. The word signifies a humble, patient steadfastness, which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of it all (A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament 11:214).
Having these definitions and comments before us, now let us make the application.
In order to have good spiritual health, especially in the midst of adversities, there are several principles by which we must live.
1. We must recognize that life is not always fair. Our sense of justice might lead us to think that we always will get what we deserve in life. That is not true. Christians are sometimes persecuted as a consequence of their doing righteousness (1 Pet. 4:16).
2. We must not allow life’s injustices to embitter us. One temptation the Devil uses to destroy men’s souls is to fill them with bitterness because of wrong suffered. The Christian must be careful not to allow his heart to fester over injustices as a result of which he becomes embittered.
Some men destroy themselves by brooding over past inequities. A church occasionally may mistreat a member (cf. 3 Jn. 9-10). Having imperfect people composing its membership, a church sometimes errs. On some occasions, the victim will quit serving the Lord altogether rather than manifesting that “patient steadfastness, which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of it all.” Without defending the sin committed against the victim, we nevertheless emphasize the weakness of character which quits serving God as a result of injustice.
3. We must manifest a yielding spirit in getting along with our fellow man. Lest someone misunderstand this point, let me state that we cannot compromise the truths of the gospel for the sake of unity. However, our attitude in getting along with others with whom we differ must be bending and yielding. We must not insist on our personal rights at the expense of brotherly love.
The Scripture says, “Let your moderation be known unto all men.” It can only be known as men see this disposition manifested by repeated acts of gentleness and self-restraint. A Christian must manifest a yielding disposition, in contrast to self-assertion of personal rights.
Self-assertion and assertion of rights may yield a temporary and personal victory. However, it ultimately leads to greater problems. A second pill in the prescription of good spiritual health is developing the character trait represented by the word “moderation.”
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 14, 418, 438
July 18, 1991