Philippians is a fantastic letter centered on Paul’s case as to why the Philippians should maintain allegiance to Yeshua in the face of marginalization and suffering.
Like most of his letters, Paul makes multiple jolting statements in Philippians that require careful unpacking. In Philippians 4, Paul makes an assertion that may not have jolted the recipients of this letter, but it has given subsequent generations good reason for pause. At the end of verse 4, Paul says, “the Lord is at hand.” Most interpreters understand this phrase to mean that Paul expected Yeshua to be returning soon and within his lifetime. Others understand Paul’s statement to refer more generally to Yeshua’s comforting presence. The second interpretation is possible, but unlikely since Paul spoke about “awaiting” Yeshua’s return just a few verses earlier in Philippians 3:20-21.
Also, we know from Paul’s other letters that he expected that Yeshua would return within his lifetime (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Paul’s statement that “the Lord is at hand” in Philippians 4:5 was intended to serve as an encouragement for the Philippian disciples to press on in the face of “the enemies of the cross” (Philippians 3:19). He wanted them to rest assured that Yeshua was returning soon. What do we make of the fact that Yeshua did not return during Paul’s lifetime, and here we are 2,000 years later, and he still has not returned?
I will begin my answer by stating that I have full confidence in Paul and his apostolic authority and the divine inspiration of his letters. The statement that “the Lord is at hand” is a reminder that Paul is human and that his prophetic insight was legitimate but limited. Paul himself acknowledged the limits of his prophetic insight in 1 Corinthians 13:12, when he said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In other words, God showed Paul a lot, but he did not see it all.
Of greater significance in answering our question, is to remember that in the Bible and Judaism, the actions of people deeply affect prophetic time clocks. Along this line, Yeshua used similar language to what we see Paul using in Philippians 4:5. In Matthew 3:2, Yeshua said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Paul and Yeshua use the same Greek root word (engoos) to speak of the “nearness” of the kingdom. It is “at hand,” they both tell us.
For both Yeshua and Paul, the kingdom could be had at any moment, but it required a certain response from the Jewish people. Sadly, the ministries of neither Yeshua nor Paul, in their time, brought about the response that could have ushered in the redemption. In other words, the redemption was near, but it depended on Israel being ready for it. As we see in the lives of both Paul and Yeshua, they were not.
Paul hoped that his fruit among the Gentiles would provoke Israel to jealousy (see Romans 11:11-15) and spark a massive turning to Yeshua that would usher in the Master’s return and the inauguration of the kingdom. That was not the response that most of Paul’s Jewish brothers had to his gospel. Although “the Lord” and “the kingdom” were “at hand,” the response of the Jewish people was lacking.
The New Testament is not alone in lamenting the iniquities that led to the delay of the kingdom. In Tractate Sanhedrin in the Talmud, there is a famous statement about the sins of Israel throwing off the messianic timetable:
The world is to exist for two thousand years. The first two thousand years were desolation. The second two thousand years were of Torah. And the third two thousand years should have been the days of the Messiah. But because of our sins, which are numerous, all these years have been lost. (Sanhedrin 97a)
That is a powerful statement from the Talmud indicating that the sins of Israel disrupted the prophetic clock.
Paul was right to emphasize the nearness of the kingdom and Yeshua’s return. That could have happened and perhaps should have occurred in his day. However, as a human, Paul did not see everything, and it all didn’t depend on him. It was fair and good for Paul to emphasize to the Philippians that the kingdom was close because it was. We must remember that humans can delay it or hasten it (2 Peter 3:12).