Q.

I know someone who smokes and drinks. He says these habits are all right as long as he does them in moderation. He thinks that the Bible backs him up. Please comment.

A.
Your friend is probably referring to Philippians 4:5, which reads as follows in the King James Version: “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.”

I see at least three problems with your friend’s interpretation.

First, we must look at the word “moderation.” This word does not mean what we today associate with it. We think of moderation as indulging in something while at the same time avoiding an extreme use of it. This is not what the apostle wrote to the believers at Philippi. Back when Bible scholars translated the King James Version, the word “moderation” meant “gentleness.” More recent translations, such as the New King James Version, use this term or similar synonyms to show the true meaning of the word today. Indeed, Bible scholars have developed a long list of words to indicate what Paul meant. It includes agreeableness, courtesy, kindness, forbearance, yieldedness, pliability, bigheartedness, generosity, kindliness, consideration, charitableness, unselfishness, mildness, geniality, graciousness, clemency, and magnanimity! One of the best ones might be “sweet reasonableness.” We can easily get the picture of what Paul was writing about after we learn these descriptive synonyms. Paul admonished the believers to exhibit a life characterized by gentleness.

Paul used the same Greek root word in 2 Corinthians 10:1: “Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you.” The word “gentleness” in that verse is the same as “moderation” (epieikeia; epieikes). In Acts 24:4 we find still another use of epieikeia when Tertullus, the lawyer for the Sanhedrin, began to accuse Paul before the Roman officer Felix. The King James Version uses the word “clemency.” Verse 4 in the New International Version reads, “But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.” So we see that the word used for “moderation” in Philippians 4:5 is again used as “kind[ness]” or “clemency.” Various other translations use the words “kindness” and “courtesy” in Acts 24:4.

Second, we find in close study of the passage (and of the whole letter to the Philippians) an emphasis on the fact that this characteristic of the believer is a product of the Holy Spirit rather than self-effort. When a person talks of moderation in relation to certain practices he chooses to be involved with, he indicates that he thinks he can control himself and not “go overboard” in them. But this use of the word “moderation” is not the Biblical case. When we see the word correctly as gentleness (or one of the synonyms), we are immediately reminded of what Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 and 23. Paul had already said in chapter 2 and verse 5 of Philippians, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” The spirit of gentleness is produced by the Holy Spirit controlling the believer, not by a person’s deciding it would be a good quality to have and then trying to produce it by self-exertion. This matter is one for believers, not unbelievers. If we are dealing with some habit of life, we all can find unbelievers as well as believers who are somehow able to avoid overuse. Unbelievers can even emulate believers in certain graces and attributes, but they do not have the indwelling Holy Spirit and His fruit.

Third, we see that Paul referred to the Holy Spirit’s fruit rather than to our present-day use of “moderation” when he referred to the result of this characteristic in the believer’s life. What good would someone participating in a questionable amusement or habit—but not to excess—be as far as witnessing goes? His moderation might merely indicate the presence of willpower. No, that type of thing does not attract people to Christ. Instead it is the loveliness of Christ in a person that attracts unbelievers to the Savior. Paul wanted the Philippians to have this Christlike characteristic. Paul wanted unbelievers to experience the aroma of Christ as they came in contact with the Philippian believers. We badly need it today, too, in our churches. Too often, instead of “sweet reasonableness” in our churches, we have bickerings and bad attitudes toward one another that keep us from expressing warmth and joy on our faces. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that the unbelieving world can’t pick this unhappiness up. And, of course, this condition doesn’t build up fellow believers either.

Then Paul mentioned that this gentleness should be present in the believer’s life because “the Lord is at hand.” Paul wasn’t planning to enter the Great Tribulation, as some today say will happen to us believers. No, this phrase “the Lord is at hand” is a powerful message to us that Christ will come for us before that event takes place. At any moment the Lord could come. Further, after the Lord raptures us, we will face the Judgment Seat of Christ, where the Lord will evaluate our works here on earth. We must conduct our lives in such a way that we will not be ashamed or miss rewards. Even in the meantime before the Rapture, we should live with the fact that the Lord dwells among us. In a sense, He is already at hand, observing our faithfulness, observing the degree to which we allow the Holy Spirit to control us.

To summarize, Paul admonished us believers to have a gentleness or a sweet reasonableness through the power of the Holy Spirit. We should avoid bigotry, though we must have deep convictions. When it comes to unimportant matters of living, we should have a yielding spirit that doesn’t insist on our own way, a spirit that doesn’t make mountains out of molehills or make sure everyone else dots their “i’s” and crosses their “t’s” the same way we do.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (March 1993).
© 1993 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.