In this blog post, Dr. Dan demonstrates how digging into the Greek language helps to unpack deep riches from the biblical text. He speaks of a single word from Philippians 4:5 in its various translations. Dr. Dan uses abbreviations for the various translations. You can find a list of the abbreviations at the end of the post.

Philippians 4:4 (“Rejoice in the Lord always”) and Philippians 4:6 “Be anxious for nothing.”) are common refrains in Christian circles. Less common is to hear the recitation of the verse sandwiched between – Philippians 4:5 which states, “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men” (NASB). This terse statement of Paul’s typically gets overshadowed by the familiar words that precede and follow it. However, just like the surrounding verses, Philippians 4:5 contains an important command for Christians to understand. One reason the verse gets overlooked is because we are uncertain about what it means for us on a practical level. We understand how to rejoice, and we can embrace the commandment not to be anxious, but what does it mean to let one’s gentle spirit be known to all men?

 Recently, I dug into this question as I reviewed this text in preparation for a sermon. I compared English translations of the noun which is translated “gentle spirit” in the NASB. What I found was surprising. I looked at 11 translations and found the word translated 7 different ways! The older translations use words that suggest a sense of controlled behavior in interactions with others—words like “moderation” (KJV) and “forbearance” (RSV).  These suggest the idea of holding back or restraining oneself in terms of emotions, demeanor, and/or behavior. In the ESV, the word is “reasonableness” that should be known to all men. This suggests something similar to self-restraint, but more in the sense of one’s thinking and how that reasoning might be reflected in one’s interactions with others.   

The other translations of the noun are more explicitly related to how one interacts with others, specifically a positive, favorable interaction—“graciousness” (CSB), “considerate” (Phillips, NLT), and most frequently “gentleness” (NIV, NKJV, NRSV) or “gentle spirit” (NASB).  The Message pulls these favorable ideas together to speak of an attitude of care that should characterize a Christian in his/her interactions with others: “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.”

I see nothing amiss in any of these translations.  None of them distort the meaning of the text. They all contribute to a fuller conception of what Paul has in mind and, of course, to the complexity of meaning that can be found within a word in any language.

However, as we discuss in our biblical interpretation classes, it is easy for a student of the Bible to see what seems like a disparity of meaning for a single word and do nothing more than select the one that feels the best at the moment. Additionally, a preacher may be inclined to select the translation that fits best with the point he is trying to make in his teaching or preaching. The prudent teacher or Bible student consults resources that can help him understand the Greek behind the English translations, but in this case one would find the same disparity in the original Greek word (epieikes) that we find among the English translations.  As we reflect on this further, we would do well to consider what these various translations of the word have in common, that is, to explore the range of meaning represented in the translations (this is what theologians call the “semantic range”).

Looking at the various English translations gives us a hint of the semantic range that we also find in the Greek. A proper understanding of the term translated “gentle spirit” can range from self-control and deference on one side of the spectrum to an attitude of concern and consideration on the other side. On one end of the spectrum, we see where epieikes is considered as requiring a holding-back or giving-up or a display of self-control to the one who is exhibiting epieikes. At the other end of the spectrum is the one who benefits from the epieikes, when it is demonstrated by another – this is seen as consideration and care. Thus the older English translations emphasized the required behavior for the one who is displaying the “gentle spirit” (moderation (KJV) and forbearance (RSV)), while many of the more recent translations focus on how this spirit is experienced by others—reasonableness (ESV), graciousness (CSB), considerate (Phillips, NLT), and gentle spirit (NASB). The range reflects how one both practices the required behavior (by restraining their behavior for the cause of Christ), and how another experiences it (by witnessing the gentle spirit of the one who is a Christ follower).

 As I sort these ideas that I find in the English translations, I am reminded about what Paul has already expressed explicitly in Philippians 2:3-4,

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.  Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others.”   

It is the same humility that Paul writes about in Philippians 2:3-4 that he exhorts should be exhibited to everyone in Philippians 4:5. The Greek word he uses in Phil. 4:5 is the same word he uses in 2 Corinthians 10:1, where speaks of the gentleness and meekness (epieikes) of Christ.  This parallels the picture of Jesus used to model humility in Philippians 2:5-11. Christ’s condescension to this Earth and His death on the Cross are the ultimate self-giving and self-emptying and are expressive of the ideas packed into epieikes.  As Herbert Preisker has stated, “As the heavenly King, He is gentle as only one who has full power can be.”[1]

In other words, in Philippians 4:5 Paul uses the imperatival (commanding) construction of epieikes simply to say in a different way what he has already said clearly in Philippians 2.  Gentleness, considerateness, and graciousness indeed flow out of humility; they are “put-others-first” concepts that are reflected in “put-others-first” attitudes and behaviors.  These attitudes and behaviors should be characteristic of the one who follows Christ. Even the control-oriented ideas of “moderation” and “forbearance” are not suggesting self-control for the sake of self-control, but the giving-up of “selfish ambition or conceit” (2:3) and looking beyond one’s own interests to consider others and their interests (2:4). In other words, Paul is continuing to point the readers to displaying Christ-like behavior – by rejoicing always (Phil. 4:4), by being anxious for nothing (Phil. 4:6), and by displaying the same type of humility and gentle spirit as our Savior, who emptied Himself for the sake of others, even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 4:5, 2:8).

While Bible students may feel frustrated by the struggle to understand and explain such ideas, they need not be. Any of the English translations I have mentioned can provide at least a starting place in this discovery. When you see, as I did, such variation in translation, explore the breadth of meaning, search for what is shared among the various translations, and consider how to capture the thread that ties them together. The variety is not because of bad translators among us but because biblical words (Hebrew and Greek) are fuller and richer words than can be translated with a single English word. We recognize that as English speakers we are blessed to have such a wealth of translations to inform our understanding of the Bible, and they all help us discover the deep riches of biblical truth. Additionally, as it applies to this passage in particular, we recognize that the beauty of the word chosen by Paul helps us to further understand the need to have the same attitude as Christ—that as we rejoice in Him (Phil. 4:4) and we choose to trust in Him rather than worry (Phil. 4:6), we should also display His attitude of service and humility to a world that needs Him.

Bible Translations

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)                                                    
  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • New Living Translation (NLT)                                                                      
  • The Message
  • Phillips Translation                                                                                         
  • Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
  • Revised Standard Version (RSV)                                                                
  • New International Version (NIV)
  • King James Version (KJV)                                                                             
  • New King James Version (NKJV)\
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

[1]Herbert Preisker, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament ((Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v.“ejpieivkeV, ejpieikhvV.”