Thinking on Godly Virtues
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (4:8)
The word finally indicates that Paul has arrived at the climax of his teaching on spiritual stability. The principle that he is about to relate is both the summation of all the others and the key to implementing them. The phrase dwell on these things introduces an important truth: spiritual stability is a result of how a person thinks. The imperative form of logizomai (dwell on) makes it a command; proper thinking is not optional in the Christian life. Logizomai means more than just entertaining thoughts; it means “to evaluate,” “to consider,” or “to calculate.” Believers are to consider the qualities Paul lists in this verse and meditate on their implications. The verb form calls for habitual discipline of the mind to set all thoughts on these spiritual virtues.
The Bible leaves no doubt that people’s lives are the product of their thoughts. Proverbs 23:7 declares, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.” The modern counterpart to that proverb is the computer acronym GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Just as a computer’s output is dependent on the information that is input, so people’s actions are the result of their thinking. Jesus expressed that truth in Mark 7:20–23: “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
Paul’s call for biblical thinking is especially relevant in our culture. The focus today is on emotion and pragmatism, and the importance of serious thinking about biblical truth is downplayed. People no longer ask “Is it true?” but “Does it work?” and “How will it make me feel?” Those latter two questions serve as a working definition of truth in our society that rejects the concept of absolute divine truth. Truth is whatever works and produces positive emotions. Sadly, such pragmatism and emotionalism has crept even into theology. The church is often more concerned about whether something will be divisive or offensive than whether it is biblically true.
Such a perspective is far different from the noble Bereans, who searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true, not whether it was divisive or practical (Acts 17:11). Too many people go to church not to think or reason about the truths of Scripture, but to get their weekly spiritual high; to feel that God is still with them. Such people are spiritually unstable because they base their lives on feeling rather than on thinking. Bill Hull writes,
What scares me is the anti-intellectual, anti-critical-thinking philosophy that has spilled over into the Church. This philosophy tends to romanticize the faith, making the local church into an experience center.… Their concept of “church” is that they are spiritual consumers and that the church’s job is to meet their felt needs. (Right Thinking [Colorado Springs, Colo: NavPress, 1985], 66)
John Stott also warned of the danger of Christians living by their feelings: “Indeed, sin has more dangerous effects on our faculty of feeling than on our faculty of thinking, because our opinions are more easily checked and regulated by revealed truth than our experiences” (Your Mind Matters [Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1972], 16).
God commands people to think. He said to rebellious Israel, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). Jesus chided the unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees for demanding a miraculous sign from Him. Instead, He challenged them to think and draw inferences from the evidence they had, just as they did to predict the weather (Matt. 16:1–3). In Luke 12:57 He said to the crowds, “And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?” God gave His revelation in a book, the Bible, and expects people to use their minds to understand its truths.
Careful thinking is the distinctive mark of the Christian faith. James Orr expressed that reality clearly:
If there is a religion in the world which exalts the office of teaching, it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ. It has been frequently remarked that in pagan religions the doctrinal element is at a minimum—the chief thing there is the performance of a ritual. But this is precisely where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions—it does contain doctrine. It comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge, though a knowledge which is only attainable under moral conditions. I do not see how any one can deal fairly with the facts as they lie before us in the Gospels and Epistles, without coming to the conclusion that the New Testament is full of doctrine.… A religion divorced from earnest and lofty thought has always, down the whole history of the Church, tended to become weak, jejune, and unwholesome; while the intellect, deprived of its rights within religion, has sought its satisfaction without, and developed into godless rationalism. (The Christian View of God and the World [New York: Scribner, 1897], 20–21)
Scripture describes the unsaved mind as depraved (Rom. 1:28; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8), focused on the flesh (Rom. 8:5), which leads to spiritual death (Rom. 8:6), hostile to God (Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21), foolish (1 Cor. 2:14), hardened to spiritual truth (2 Cor. 3:14), blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), futile (Eph. 4:17), ignorant (Eph. 4:18), and defiled (Titus 1:15).
Because of that, the first element in salvation is a proper mental understanding of the truth of the gospel. Jesus said in Matthew 13:19, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Romans 10:17 could be translated, “Faith comes from hearing a speech about Christ,” emphasizing again that faith involves thinking (cf. Isa. 1:18). That is why Peter commands believers to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). J. Gresham Machen observed, “What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a man a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence” (The Christian Faith in the Modern World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 63).
God saves people to be worshipers, and “those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It is therefore impossible to worship God apart from truth. When Paul visited Athens, the cultural capital of the ancient world, “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). But what disturbed him as much as the blatant idolatry was that he “found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ ” (Acts 17:23). Natural minds can see the world and conclude that there is a God. But by human reason it can only be known that He exists, not who He is. To the natural reason He is the “unknown” and the unknowable God. He can only be truly known by supernatural theology, the revelation of Scripture. God will not accept worship based on ignorance. Paul therefore proceeded to explain to the Athenian philosophers who God has revealed Himself to be (Acts 17:24–31).
In sharp contrast to the contemporary definition of faith, biblical faith is not an irrational “leap in the dark.” It is not a mystical encounter with the “wholly other” or the “ground of being.” Nor is it optimism, psychological self-hypnosis, or wishful thinking. True faith is a reasoned response to revealed truth in the Bible, and salvation results from an intelligent response, prompted by the Holy Spirit, to that truth.
In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus rebuked the disciples for the sin of worry. In a remarkable section of his classic work Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out that the disciples’ problem was that they failed to think. Instead, they allowed themselves to be controlled by their circumstances.
Faith, according to our Lord’s teaching in this paragraph, is primarily thinking; and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think. He allows circumstances to bludgeon him. That is the real difficulty in life. Life comes to us with a club in its hand and strikes us upon the head, and we become incapable of thought, helpless and defeated. The way to avoid that, according to our Lord, is to think. We must spend more time in studying our Lord’s lessons in observation and deduction. The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical. We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith. Christian faith is essentially thinking. Look at the birds, think about them, and draw your deductions. Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them.
The trouble with most people, however, is that they will not think. Instead of doing this, they sit down and ask, What is going to happen to me? What can I do? That is the absence of thought; it is surrender, it is defeat. Our Lord, here, is urging us to think, and to think in a Christian manner. That is the very essence of faith. Faith, if you like, can be defined like this: It is a man insisting upon thinking when everything seems determined to bludgeon and knock him down in an intellectual sense. The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else, and, as we put it, he goes round and round in circles. That is the essence of worry.… That is not thought; that is the absence of thought, a failure to think. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 2:129–30)
Thinking is essential to saving faith, as well as to sanctifying faith.
Salvation involves the transformation of the mind. In Romans 8:5 Paul writes, “Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh.” Unsaved, fleshly people have an unsaved, fleshly mind-set. They think as fallen, unredeemed people. On the other hand, “those who are according to the Spirit [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit.” Their renewed minds are focused on spiritual truth. Consequently, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The Holy Spirit now controls the mind that before salvation was depraved, ignorant, and blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). The redeemed mind no longer thinks on the fleshly level, but on the spiritual level.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul described one of the most amazing realities of salvation: “Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God.” Believers’ renewed minds can plunge into the deep thoughts of the eternal God (cf. Ps. 92:5) and never reach the bottom. In 1 Corinthians 2:11–16 Paul expanded on that thought:
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
In contrast to the “natural man [who] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” the Holy Spirit grants to believers the ability to “know the things freely given to us by God.” In fact, “we have the mind of Christ”; through the Spirit, believers have knowledge of God that they would otherwise never have had.
Just as the believers’ initial act of saving faith leads to a life of faith, so also the transforming of the mind at salvation initiates a lifelong process of renewing the mind. In Romans 12:2 Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” To the Ephesians he wrote, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:23). Jesus, answering the question as to which was the greatest commandment of the Law, said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Peter also spoke of renewing the mind when he commanded, “Prepare your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). Paul called for believers to “set [their] mind[s] on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). More than a dozen times in his epistles Paul asked his readers, “Do you not know?” The apostle expected believers to think and evaluate. Nor is that an exclusively New Testament perspective. In Proverbs 2:1–6 Solomon counseled,
My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
The psalmist cried out, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps. 119:34).
Believers must discipline their spiritually sensitive minds to think about right spiritual realities. In this brief list, Paul catalogues eight godly virtues to concentrate on.
The Word of God is the repository of what is true. In His High Priestly Prayer Jesus said to the Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). In Psalm 19:9 David wrote, “The judgments of the Lord are true,” while Psalm 119:151 adds, “All Your commandments are truth.” The Bible is true because the “God of truth” (Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16; cf. Eph. 4:21) inspired it. Thinking on whatever is true means reading, analyzing, and meditating on the Word of God. The remaining seven virtuous categories of thought are all based on the truth of God’s Word. All of them are ways to view the truths of Scripture.
Second, believers are to think on whatever is honorable, whatever is noble, dignified, and worthy of respect. Semnos (honorable) comes from a word meaning “to revere,” or “to worship.” In its other New Testament uses, it describes the dignified lifestyle required of deacons (1 Tim. 3:8), deaconesses (1 Tim. 3:11), and older men (Titus 2:2). Believers must not think on what is trivial, temporal, mundane, common, and earthly, but rather on what is heavenly, and so worthy of awe, adoration, and praise. All that is true in God’s Word is honorable.
Third, believers are to think on whatever is right. Dikaios (right) is an adjective, and should be translated “righteous.” It describes whatever is in perfect harmony with God’s eternal, unchanging standards, again as revealed in Scripture. Believers are to think on matters that are consistent with the law of God.
Fourth, believers are to think on whatever is pure. Hagnos (pure) describes what God in Scripture defines as holy, morally clean, and undefiled. In 1 Timothy 5:22 it is translated “free from sin.” Believers are to purify themselves because Jesus Christ is pure (1 John 3:3).
Fifth, believers are to think on whatever is lovely. Prosphilēs (lovely) appears only here in the New Testament. It could be translated “sweet,” “gracious,” “generous,” or “patient.” Believers must focus their thoughts on what the Bible says is pleasing, attractive, and amiable before God.
Sixth, believers are to think on whatever is of good repute. Euphēmos also appears only here in the New Testament. It describes what is highly regarded or well thought of. Believers’ thoughts are elevated by Scripture to fix on the loftiest themes.
In summary, Paul exhorts, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The key to godly living is godly thinking, as Solomon wisely observed: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).
God’s Rule for Doubtful Things
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praise-worthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
These verses are a statement of one of God’s rules for doubtful things. They introduce us to the problems of regulating our conduct in areas of life where the Bible is not entirely explicit. Should a Christian drink alcohol or not? Can he enter politics? Can he work for a company that manufactures war materials? To what extent can a believer adopt the standards of his times and society? The answers to such questions must be given in their broadest possible scope; accordingly, we shall range through Scripture, returning at last to these verses in Philippians.
We need to recognize first that although many of the issues that trouble Christians are silly and do not deserve much attention, not all of them are. Consequently, we must not make the mistake of avoiding all serious thought about such matters.
Elisabeth Elliot has written on one of these problems in a book called The Liberty of Obedience, which is based on her experiences. She had always had the idea, perhaps as the product of her Christian upbringing, that there was a certain type of clothing that was right for a Christian to wear. Conversely, there was clothing that was wrong. Then she went to Ecuador and found herself in the midst of a tropical people who wore little or no clothing at all. What did her standards have to do with them? Should she dress new converts? Should their standards prevail? She said the problem became even more complex when she realized in time that, although the women in the tribe wore almost no clothing, they were nevertheless conscious of the proper ways to walk, sit, and stand that they thought modest. The entire problem forced her to ask herself if there is anything inherently Christian or non-Christian in the way we dress in America.
Another problem with an uncertain answer is alcohol. Should a Christian drink? Does the level of society in which a Christian finds himself matter? I admire people, such as some Christian businesspeople I know who do not drink. But what happens to this conviction when you go to France, as I did as a young boy, and see the leading deacon of an evangelical Protestant church going around a large ring of children at a Sunday school picnic mixing a little wine with their cups of water? I know that part of the reason he did it was to prevent their getting sick on the water in a rural area, but the main point is his attitude toward alcohol. This was obviously quite different in France than in America, even among people who believed all that the most conservative Christians believe about the gospel in the United States. Comparisons such as this defeat any approach to the problem through legalism. Comparison throws the student back upon the important principles of Scripture.
What are they? I should like to suggest three principles that will help any Christian in 99 percent of his or her difficulties. All these are found throughout Scripture, but they are summarized in three important verses: Romans 6:14; 1 Corinthians 6:12 (also 10:23); and Philippians 4:8. They tell us that we are to live (as we have been saved) by grace; that we are to think first, last, and always of others; and that we are to pursue the highest things. The last verse is our text in Philippians.
Not Law, But Grace
The first principle, then, is that we are not under law; we are under grace. The text is Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” This verse teaches that whatever the answer may be to the problem of doubtful practices, it is not legalism. That is, the way will never be found by organizing any body of Christians to declare whether or not movies, cigarettes, alcohol, war, or whatever it may be, is proper.
Historically, this problem was fought to a decisive conclusion in the first generation of the church. We must remember that, because of the wide dispersion of Jews through the Roman world in the centuries before Christ, there was hardly a congregation of believers during the first Christian century that did not consist of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, even in the most gentile cities of the empire. Because of their own religious and social training, the Jewish Christians got the idea that the gentile believers should submit to the ceremonial laws of Israel, and the result was a tremendous battle in which for a time the apostle Paul fought almost single-handedly against them. For a time even Peter was carried away with the error. But Paul resisted him (Gal. 2:11–14) and later defended the case for gentile (and Jewish) liberty before the other apostles in Jerusalem. On this occasion Peter sided with Paul and said, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:10–11). In the early church the battle against legalism was won for pure grace.
It is also true, however, that the same verse that speaks against legalism also speaks against another error that is likewise a wrong approach to the problem. This error is the error of license, the teaching that because we are not under law but under grace Christians can therefore go on doing as they please. That is to say, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” This error pretends to be logical, but it is not. It is infernal, and Paul does not hesitate to say so. The very next verse says, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom. 6:15). He adds, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (v. 22).
Paul’s argument is that life by grace actually leads to holiness and, hence, we should not fear to abolish legalism as an answer to the problems of Christian conduct. The way it works may be illustrated by two types of marriage. There is the type of marriage that is founded on law. In this marriage the wife says something like this. “I know that you are going off to that office party tonight, and I know that dozens of those young secretaries will be there. Don’t you dare look at any of them. Because if you do and I hear about it, I’ll really lay into you when you get home. And be back by ten-thirty.” Well, if the wife says that, the husband is likely to go off saying to himself, “So that’s what she wants, is it? Well, I’ll just stay out as long as I please and do as I please.” There will be no end of friction. Legalism does not promote happiness or fidelity in marriage.
The other type of marriage is one in which there is love rather than law. Each partner knows the faults of the other, but they know that they love each other anyway and have forgiven the faults in advance. Are they happy? Certainly. And they are faithful in the relationship. In a similar way, the grace of God never makes us rebels; it makes us men and women who love God and desire to please him.
All Things are Not Expedient
The second principle for determining God’s will in doubtful matters is that although all things are lawful for the Christian—because he is not under law but under grace—all things are not expedient. That is true for two reasons: First, because the thing itself may gain a harmful control over him or have a harmful effect on him physically. Second, because through him it may hurt other Christians.
The first reason is given in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “ ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Paul knew that God had not set him free from sin and the law in order for him to become captive to mere things.
The guiding principle here is whether you as a Christian are using things or whether things are using you. Take food for an example. Nothing can be as obviously good for a person as food; it is necessary for bodily strength as well as mental health. But it is possible for a person to become so addicted to overeating that the good end is thwarted and the person’s health is endangered. Hence, certain eating habits should be avoided (v. 13). A second example is sex (vv. 13–20). This too is good: it is a gift of God. Within the bonds of marriage it is a force for strength in the home as well as an expression of close union. But it too can be destructive. It can control the person instead of the person controlling it, and in this form sex can destroy the very values it was created to maintain. The Bible teaches that the Christian must never use things—food, sex, drugs, alcohol, cars, homes, stocks, or whatever it may be—in such a way that he or she actually falls under their power. In some of these cases, such as the case of habit-forming drugs, I would think that 1 Corinthians 6:12 is an unequivocable warning to avoid them.
Later on in 1 Corinthians Paul gives another reason why something may not be expedient: the freedom of one believer may hurt the spiritual growth of another. Here Paul says, “ ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Cor. 10:23). The verses that follow show that he is thinking of the edification and growth of fellow Christians.
I do not believe this verse means you have to take your standards of conduct entirely from what other Christians say or think. If you do that, you are either going to become hypocritical, schizophrenic, or mad. Ethel Barrett, who was well known for her Bible-story work among children, tells of her early experiences with matters of dress as she first began to travel about the country. She came from California, and her standards of dress were formed by the climate and style of California. Her clothes were bright; she wore makeup and large hats. When she went east she soon met some for whom her standards of dress were unspiritual. They said, “Why does she look like that? That is no way for a Christian to dress.” Being young and less experienced then, she took it to heart. She changed her clothes and stopped wearing makeup. It was not long, however, before some new remarks got back to her: “Why does she have to look so drab and unpleasant? She would have a much more effective and spiritual ministry if she would brighten herself up a bit.” Ethel Barrett learned through experience that you cannot take all of your standards of conduct from other Christians. She was right. The verse does not mean that you are to allow the prejudices and viewpoints of others to dictate your pattern of behavior.
Yet the verse does mean something. It says there are situations in which we must avoid certain things, even if they are right in themselves, lest they be detrimental to others. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have been witnessing to a young man who has been having a hard time overcoming a disposition to sexual sins. He has become a Christian, but the lure of the flesh is still with him. This verse means that you had better not take him to see or encourage him to see certain movies. What is more, you had best not go yourself, for he may be harmed by your freedom. In the same way, we are not to serve alcohol to anyone for whom it may be a problem; for that person’s sake, we are to avoid it also.
Moreover, we are to be consistent in our abstinence, for we must not appear double-faced or hypocritical. We must sometimes be consistent over a long period of time. Paul wrote, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (1 Cor. 8:13). Never again! And this from the same apostle who had defended the cause of Christian liberty successfully before the Jerusalem apostles! We must remember that it will be costly if we are to be careful of the effect of our conduct upon others.
The Better Things
The final principle of the three that I think best helps to direct our conduct in doubtful areas is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” According to this verse the Christian is to decide between doubtful things by choosing the best.
This does not exclude the best things in our society, whether explicitly Christian or not. For the meat of the verse lies in the fact (not always noticed by Bible teachers) that the virtues mentioned here are pagan virtues. These words do not occur in the great lists of Christian virtues, lists that include love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. On the whole they are taken from Greek ethics and from the writings of the Greek philosophers. In using them Paul is actually sanctifying, as it were, the generally accepted virtues of pagan morality. He is saying that although the pursuit of the best things by Christians will necessarily mean the pursuit of fellowship with God, the will of God, all means to advance the claims of the gospel, and other spiritual things also, it will not mean the exclusion of the best values the world has to offer. The things that are acknowledged to be honorable by the best people everywhere are also worthy to be cultivated by Christians. Consequently, Christians can love all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, wherever they find it. They can rejoice in the best of art and good literature. They can thrill to great music. They can thrive on beautiful architecture. They should do it. You should do it. Christians can thank God for giving us the ability even in our fallen state to create such things of beauty.
Moreover, as you use this principle for determining God’s will in doubtful things, you can also take confidence from the promise of God’s presence that accompanies it. Paul often writes parenthetically in his letters, and he does so here. The result is that the first half of verse 9 seems partially to distort the meaning of the sentence. The first half says, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” As the verse stands we would tend to think that the promise of God’s presence is attached to it. Actually, it is attached to verse 8, and the promise is: “Whatever things are true, noble, right, pure, and lovely, think about these things … and the God of peace will be with you.”
When we pursue the highest things in life, both spiritually and secularly, then the God of peace will be with us. And we shall have the confidence that he will bless and guide us as we seek to please him.
8 Paul moves to a new set of admonitions with to loipon (GK 3370), which, as in 3:1, means “as for the rest” rather than “finally.” One way to fight anxiety is for Christians to focus their minds on virtues—“the real goods of virtue” as opposed to “the false goods of pleasure” (Paul A. Holloway, “Notes and Observations Bona Cogitare: An Epicurean Consolation in Phil 4:8–9,” HTR 91 : 95). This exhortation for them to consider whatever is true, honorable, and just is without analogy in Paul’s other letters and arises from his desire to restore harmony to the community.
The “whatsoever things” (hosa; NIV, “whatever”) refers to those things learned from the example of Christ and from those who clearly follow Christ’s example (3:17; 4:9). “Whatever is true” is not whatever one’s culture might claim to be true. Truth is measured only by God and requires spiritual discernment. Paul expects his readers to have the moral discernment to make their own right judgments about what exactly constitutes the virtues he lists. “Whatever is noble” (semnos, GK 4948) means what is dignified and above reproach—that which inspires respect from others. “Whatever is right” (dikaios, GK 1465) is something that conforms to custom or law. For Christians, what is “right” is defined by God’s justice, but Paul may also have in view its association with the Greek virtue of establishing order and harmony (see Plato, Republic 4.443 c–e). “Whatever is pure” (hagnos, GK 54) is defined by God’s holiness and is connected to what is chaste. “Whatever is lovely” (prosphilēs, GK 4713) is not simply anything that brings delight and pleasure. The word “pleasing” (or “agreeable,” “amiable”) would fit the context better, and it would apply to the effect of one’s relations on others (cf. Sir 4:7; 20:13). “Whatever is admirable,” or “of good repute” (euphēmia, GK 2367), denotes what is well sounding as opposed to grumbling. It is the right choice of words that reveals deference and respect for others.
Paul shifts the sentence structure abruptly to conditional clauses—“if anything is …” “If anything is excellent” (aretē, GK 746) refers to a virtuous character; the word was used to describe those whose moral uprightness contributed to the common welfare. The Shepherd of Hermas (Sim. 8.10.3), for example, links the word to righteousness, and those who exhibit this virtue are contrasted with those who are double-minded and foment division (Sim. 8.10.2). “If anything is … praiseworthy” (epainos, GK 2047) in a Christian context refers to those things that will bring commendation from God (1 Co 4:5; 1 Pe 1:7). To “think about such things” (tauta logizesthe, GK 3357) requires more than sublime contemplation; it means taking such things into account so that one does them. The verb’s usage in Romans 6:11 (“count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”) and its alternate expression in the next verse, “do these things” (tauta prassete [GK 4556], Php 4:9; NIV, “put it into practice”), make clear that action is to be involved.
8 With this “finally,” and its accompanying (final) vocative, “brothers and sisters,” Paul concludes the “hortatory” dimension of this “hortatory letter of friendship.” There is one further item to add, his grateful recognition of their renewed material support (vv. 10–20); but that belongs to the dimension of friendship altogether (without being “hortatory”), and has basically to do with their relationship with him. This “finally” concludes his concerns about them (and is thus also “hortatory”).
What is striking about this sentence is its uniqueness in the Pauline corpus. Take away the “finally, brothers and sisters,” and this sentence would fit more readily in Epictetus’s Discourses or Seneca’s Moral Essays than it would into any of the Pauline letters—except this one. The six adjectives and two nouns that make up the sentence are as uncommon in Paul as most of them are common stock to the world of Greco-Roman moralism. However, they are also the language of Jewish wisdom; indeed, the closest parallel to this sentence in the NT is not in the Pauline letters but in Jas 3:13–18, where some of this same language (as well as that of vv. 4–7) occurs in speaking of “the wisdom that is from above.”
But what Paul says here is much less clear than the English translations would lead one to believe. The impression given is that he is calling on them one final time to “give their minds” to nobler things. That may be true in one sense, but the language and grammar suggest something slightly different. The verb ordinarily means to “reckon” in the sense of “take into account,” rather than simply to “think about.” This suggests that Paul is telling them not so much to “think high thoughts” as to “take into account” the good they have long known from their own past, as long as it is conformable to Christ. This seems confirmed by the double proviso, “if anything,” that interrupts the sentence. The six words themselves, at least the first four, already point to what is virtuous and praiseworthy; so why add the proviso unless he intends them to select out what is morally excellent and praiseworthy from these “whatever things” that belong to the world around them, and to do so on the basis of Christ himself? Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently “citizens of heaven,” living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross.
Despite its several correspondences to hellenistic moralism and Jewish wisdom, however, this is Paul’s own enumeration. It neither reflects the four cardinal virtues of Hellenism,15 nor is there anything else quite like it as a list in the ancient world, either in form or content. As with all such “virtue” lists in Paul, it is intended to be representative, not definitive. The six adjectives cover a broad range—truth, honor, uprightness, purity, what is pleasing or admirable. Since they also reflect what the teachers of Wisdom considered to be the best path for the young to adopt, very likely this language in part came to Paul by way of this tradition. In any case, in Paul they must be understood in light of the cross, since that is surely the point of the final proviso in v. 9 that whatever else they do, they are to follow Paul’s teaching and thus imitate his cruciform lifestyle. Thus:
(1) Whatever is true. For Paul truth is narrowly circumscribed, finding its measure in God (Rom 1:18, 25) and the gospel (Gal 2:5; 5:7). As a virtue, especially in Jewish wisdom, it has to do with true speech (Prov 22:21) over against the lie and deceit (cf. 1:18 above) or is associated with righteousness and equity. Just as suppression of the truth about God, which leads to believing the lie about him, is the first mark of idolatry (the worship of false deities), so the first word in this virtue list calls them to give consideration to whatever conforms to the gospel.
(2) Whatever is noble. Although this word most often has a “sacred” sense (“revered” or “majestic”), here it probably denotes “honorable,” “noble,” or “worthy of respect.” It occurs in Prov 8:6 also in conjunction with “truth” and “righteousness,” as characteristic of what Wisdom has to say. Thus, whatever is “worthy of respect,” wherever it may come from, is also worth giving consideration to.
(3) Whatever is right. As with “truth,” what is “right” is always defined by God and his character. Thus, even though this is one of the cardinal virtues of Greek antiquity, in Paul it carries the further sense of “righteousness,” so that it is not defined by merely human understanding of what is “right” or “just,” but by God and his relationship with his people.
(4) Whatever is pure. This word originated in the cultus, where what had been sanctified for the temple was considered “pure”; along with the related word “holy,” it soon took on moral implications. In Proverbs it stands over against “the thoughts of the wicked” (15:26) or “the way of the guilty” (21:8, in conjunction with being “upright”). Thus, “whatever things are pure” has to do with whatever is not “besmirched” or “tainted” in some way by evil. As with “truth” it occurs earlier in this letter (1:17) to contrast those whose motives are “impure” in preaching the gospel so as to “afflict” Paul.
(5) Whatever is lovely. With this word and the next we step off NT turf altogether onto the more unfamiliar ground of Hellenism—but not hellenistic moralism (see n. 15). This word has to do primarily with what people consider “lovable,” in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward. The NJB catches the sense well by translating, “everything that we love.” Here is the word that throws the net broadly, so as to include conduct that has little to do with morality in itself, but is recognized as admirable by the world at large. In common parlance, this word could refer to a Beethoven symphony, as well as to the work of Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta; the former is lovely and enjoyable, the latter is admirable as well as moral.
(6) Whatever is admirable. Although not quite a synonym of the preceding word, it belongs to the same general category of “virtues.” Not a virtue in the moral sense, it represents the kind of conduct that is worth considering because it is well spoken of by people in general.
It is probably the lack of inherent morality in the last two words that called forth the interrupting double proviso that follows, “if anything is excellent, if anything is praiseworthy.” The word “excellent”27 is the primary Greek word for “virtue” or “moral excellence.” It is generally avoided, at least in this sense, by the LXX translators.28 Although not found elsewhere in Paul, the present usage, along with “contentment” in v. 11, is clear evidence that he felt no need to shy away from the language of the Greek moralists. What he intends, of course, is that “virtue” be filled with Christian content, exemplified by his own life and teaching (v. 9). Likewise with “praiseworthy.” Although this word probably refers to the approval of others, the basis has been changed from “general ethical judgment”30 to conduct that is in keeping with God’s own righteousness. While not inherent in v. 8 itself, such an understanding of these words comes from the immediately following exhortation to “imitate” Paul, which in turn must be understood in light of what has been said to this point.
Think about the right things (v. 8)
The book of Proverbs says: ‘… as he thinks in his heart, so is he’ (Prov. 23:7).
In keeping with that thought, Paul suggests to his readers a ‘divine programming’ that will ensure their peace. He calls upon them to think about:
- the true—those things that correspond to the teaching of God’s Word;
- the noble—those things that have the dignity of moral excellence;
- the just—those things that conform to God’s standards;
- the pure—those things that are free from the taint of sin;
- the lovely—those virtues that make believers attractive and winsome, such as generosity, kindness, compassion and willingness to forgive;
- the things of good report—those things that give Christians a good reputation and a good name.
Paul sums it all up by telling his readers to meditate on anything of virtue and anything worthy of praise.
Paul concludes this set of instructions to the church with these words: ‘The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you’ (v. 9).
This is the third time that Paul has explicitly called his readers to follow his example (2:17–18; 3:17). It must be said again that Paul is not merely giving way here to pride. Every pastor is called to set the kind of example that others can follow. If one is doing this, he can safely call others to follow him.
4:8 / Finally, brothers: practically the same wording as in 3:1.
If “the mind is dyed the color of its waking thoughts,” then what one thinks about gives character to life. As good food is necessary for bodily health, so good thoughts are necessary for mental and spiritual health. Paul lists six such things, and then urges the Philippians to think about such things; that is, “take them into account” or “give them weight in your decisions” (F. W. Beare). Set your minds on such things, he says, and having set your minds on them, plan to act accordingly—whatever is
(1) True. This could be a warning against indulgence in mental fantasies or baseless slanders. But even some things that are factually true are not healthy things to dwell on: whatever is true has the moral qualities of uprightness and dependability, of reality as opposed to mere appearance.
(2) Noble. This word (Gk. semnos) is particularly common in the Pastoral Letters; this is its only nt occurrence outside those three documents. A mind that concentrates on ignoble matters is in danger of becoming ignoble itself. Nobility is the converse of that vulgarity which debases all moral currency and is incompatible with the mind of Christ.
(3) Right, or righteous (Gk. dikaios). The propriety of righteous thoughts and plans needs no emphasizing: God himself is righteous and loves righteousness in his people (Ps. 11:7). The converse to this is found in the wicked man who “even on his bed … plots evil” in order to carry it into action when daylight comes (Ps. 36:4; cf. Amos 8:4–6).
(4) Pure. The word (Gk. hagnos) has the general sense of innocence (as in 2 Cor. 7:11) or the special sense of chastity (as in 2 Cor. 11:2). Purity of thought and purpose is a precondition of purity in word and action, as opposed to “sexual immorality, or … any kind of impurity, or … greed” which should not even be mentioned among God’s people (Eph. 5:3).
(5) Lovely. (Gk. prosphilēs). Lovely things are those that commend themselves by their intrinsic attractiveness and agreeableness. They give pleasure to all and cause distaste to none, like a welcome fragrance.
(6) Admirable. (Gk. euphēmos). A thing is admirable in this sense if it deservedly enjoys a good reputation. The mind that dwells on such things rather than on those that are disreputable has much in common with the love that takes more pleasure in what is to other people’s credit than in what is to their discredit (1 Cor. 13:6).
There is a rhythmic quality about the Greek text of verse 8 (as there is in the familiar kjv rendering: “Whatsoever things are true …”). This suggests that Paul may be quoting some well-known words of ethical admonition. The virtues listed are not specifically Christian; they are excellent and commendable wherever they are found. But in a Christian context such as they are given here they take on the distinctive nuances associated with the mind of Christ.
Such things, then—things that are excellent or praiseworthy—are to be pondered and planned; the results will be beneficial for life and action.
true states of mind
Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things have the dignity of holiness on them, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are winsome, whatever things are fair-spoken, if there are any things which men count excellence, and if there are any things which bring men praise, think of the value of these things. Practise these things which you have learned and received, and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
The human mind will always set itself on something, and Paul wanted to be quite sure that the Philippians would set their minds on the right things. This is something of the utmost importance, because it is a law of life that, if we think of something often enough, we will come to the stage when we cannot stop thinking about it. Our thoughts will be quite literally in a groove out of which we cannot jolt them. It is, therefore, of the ﬁrst importance that we should set our thoughts upon the ﬁne things—and here Paul makes a list of them.
There are the things which are true. Many things in this world are deceptive and illusory, promising what they can never perform, offering a false peace and happiness which they can never supply. We should always set our thoughts on the things which will not let us down.
There are the things which are, as the Authorized Version has it, honest. This is an archaic use of honest in the sense of honourable, as the Revised Standard Version translates it. The Authorized Version suggests in the margin venerable. The Revised Version has honourable and suggests in the margin reverent. Moffatt has worthy.
It can be seen from all this that the Greek (semnos) is difﬁcult to translate. It is the word which is characteristically used of the gods and of the temples of the gods. When used to describe an individual, it describes a person who, as it has been said, moves through life as if the whole world were the temple of God. The nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold suggested the translation nobly serious. But the word really describes that which has the dignity of holiness upon it. There are things in this world which are ﬂippant and cheap and attractive to those who never take life seriously; but it is on the things which are serious and digniﬁed that Christians will set their minds.
There are the things which are just. The word is dikaios, and the Greeks deﬁned the person who is dikaios as the one who gives to gods and to other people what is their due. In other words, dikaios is the word of duty faced and duty done. There are those who set their minds on pleasure, comfort and easy ways. The Christian’s thoughts are on duty to other people and duty to God.
There are the things which are pure. The word is hagnos and describes what is morally uncontaminated. When it is used ceremonially, it describes that which has been so cleansed that it is ﬁt to be brought into the presence of God and used in his service. This world is full of things which are sordid and shabby and soiled and smutty. Many people develop a way of thinking that soils everything. The Christian’s mind is set on the things which are pure; the Christian’s thoughts are so clean that they can stand even the scrutiny of God.
There are the things which the Authorized Version and the Revised Standard Version call lovely. James Moffatt’s translation has attractive. The word we have chosen, winsome, a word not so often used today, is the best translation of all. The Greek is prosphilēs, and it might be paraphrased as that which calls forth love. There are those whose minds are so set on vengeance and punishment that they cause bitterness and fear in others. There are those whose minds are so set on criticism and rebuke that they bring out resentment in others. Christians set their minds on the lovely things—kindness, sympathy, patience—so they are winsome people, whose presence inspires feelings of love.
There are the things which are, as the Authorized Version has it, of good report. In the margin, the Revised Version suggests gracious. Moffatt has high-toned. The Revised Standard Version has gracious. Charles Kingsley Williams has whatever has a good name. It is not easy to get at the meaning of this word (eophema). It literally means fair-speaking; but it was especially connected with the holy silence at the beginning of a sacriﬁce in the presence of the gods. It might not be going too far to say that it describes the things which are ﬁt for God to hear. There are far too many ugly words and false words and impure words in this world. On the lips and in the minds of Christians, there should be only words which are ﬁt for God to hear.
Paul goes on: if there be any virtue. Both Moffatt and the Revised Standard Version use excellence instead of virtue. The word is aretē. The odd fact is that, although aretē was one of the great classical words, Paul usually seems deliberately to avoid it, and this is the only time it occurs in his writings. In classical thought, it described every kind of excellence. It could describe the excellence of the ground in a ﬁeld, the excellence of a tool for its purpose, the physical excellence of an animal, the excellence of the courage of a soldier, and the virtue of an individual. Lightfoot suggests that with this word Paul calls in as an ally all that was excellent in the non-Christian background of his friends. It is as if he were saying: ‘If the idea of excellence held by the religions in which you were brought up has any inﬂuence over you—think of that. Think of your past life at its very highest, to spur you on to the new heights of the Christian way.’ The world has its impurities and its degradations, but it also has its ﬁne qualities and its brave actions, and it is of the high things that Christians must think.
Finally, Paul says: if there be any praise. In one sense, it is true that Christians never think of the praise of others, but in another sense it is true that every good individual is uplifted by the praise of good men and women. So Paul says that Christians will live in such a way that they will neither conceitedly desire nor foolishly despise the praise of others.
the true teaching and the true god
Philippians 4:8–9 (contd)
In this passage, Paul lays down the way of true teaching.
He speaks of the things which the Philippians have learned. These are the things in which he personally instructed them. This stands for the personal interpretation of the gospel, which Paul brought to them. He speaks of the things which the Philippians have received. The word is paralambanein, which characteristically means to accept a ﬁxed tradition. This, then, stands for the accepted teaching of the Church, which Paul had handed on to them.
From these two words, we learn that teaching consists of two things. It consists of handing on to others the accepted body of truth and doctrine which the whole Church holds; and it consists of illuminating that body of doctrine by the personal interpretation and instruction of the teacher. If we would teach or preach, we must know the accepted body of the Church’s doctrine; and then we must pass it through our own minds and hand it on to others, both in its own simplicity and in the signiﬁcances which our own experiences and our own thinking have given to it.
Paul goes further than that. He tells the Philippians to copy what they have heard and seen in himself. Tragically few teachers and preachers can speak like that; and yet it remains true that personal example is an essential part of teaching. Teachers must demonstrate in action the truth which they express in words.
Finally, Paul tells his Philippian friends that, if they faithfully do all this, the God of peace will be with them. It is of great interest to study Paul’s titles for God.
(1) He is the God of peace. This, in fact, is his favourite title for God (Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). To a Jew, peace was never merely a negative thing, never merely the absence of trouble. It was everything which makes for a person’s highest good. Only in the friendship of God is it possible to ﬁnd life as it was meant to be. But also, to a Jew, this peace led especially to right relationships. It is only by the grace of God that we can enter into a right relationship with him and with one another. The God of peace is able to make life what it was meant to be by enabling us to enter into fellowship with himself and with other people.
(2) He is the God of hope (Romans 15:13). Belief in God is the only thing which can keep us from the ultimate despair. Only the sense of the grace of God can keep us from despairing about ourselves; and only the sense of the providence of God which rules over all things can keep us from despairing about the world. The psalmist sang: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?… Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God’ (Psalm 42:11, Psalm 43:5). The hymn-writer F. W. Faber wrote:
For right is right, since God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.
The hope of Christians is indestructible because it is founded on the eternal God.
(3) He is the God of patience, of comfort and of consolation (Romans 15:5; 2 Corinthians 1:3). Here, we have two great words. Patience is in Greek hupomonē, which never means simply the ability to sit down and bear things but the ability to rise up and conquer them. God is the one who gives us the power to use any experience to lend greatness and glory to life. God is the one in whom we learn to use joy and sorrow, success and failure, achievement and disappointment alike, to enrich and to ennoble life, to make us more useful to others and to bring us nearer to himself. Consolation and comfort are the same Greek word—paraklēsis. Paraklēsis is far more than soothing sympathy; it is encouragement. It is the help which not only puts an arm round someone but sends that person out to face the world; it not only wipes away the tears but makes it possible to face the world with steady eyes. Paraklēsis is comfort and strength combined. God is the one in whom any situation becomes our glory and in whom people ﬁnd strength to go on gallantly when life has collapsed.
(4) He is the God of love and peace (2 Corinthians 13:11). Here, we are at the heart of the matter. Behind everything is that love of God which will never let us go, which puts up with all our sinning, which will never cast us off, which never sentimentally weakens but always vigorously strengthens us for the battle of life.
Peace, hope, patience, comfort, love—these were the things which Paul found in God. Indeed, ‘our competence is from God’ (2 Corinthians 3:5).
III. Summary of Christian Duty
8 For the rest, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things (are) honorable, whatever things (are) just, whatever things (are) pure, whatever things (are) lovely, whatever things (are) of good report; if (there be) any virtue and if (there be) any praise, be thinking about these things. 9 The things which you not only learned and received but also heard and saw in me, these things put into constant practice; and the God of peace will be with you.
8. For the rest—see on 3:1—brothers—see on 1:12—whatever things are true. Many are of the opinion that the apostle is here copying a paragraph from a pagan book on morality or from this or that Manual of Discipline circulated by an Essenic sect. Objections:
(1) The definitely Christian character of this exhortation is clear from the reference to the peace of God which precedes it and the God of peace which follows it.
(2) It is also clear from the fact that the apostle states that these things have been heard and seen in himself. Surely, the Philippians had seen Christian virtues displayed in Paul!
(3) Wherever possible, words used by Paul in any passage should be interpreted in the light of their true parallels in Scripture, especially in Paul’s own letters.
Note the six occurrences of whatever, followed by two instances of any. Believers should exhibit not just this or that trait of Christian character but “all the graces in choral order and festal array” (Johnstone).
The apostle tells the Philippians to meditate on whatever things are true. Truth stands over against falsehood (Eph. 4:25). It has its norm in God (Rom. 3:4), goes hand in hand with goodness, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; 5:9) and is climaxed in gospel-truth (Eph. 1:13; 4:21; Col. 1:5, 6). Truth belongs to the armor of the Christian soldier (Eph. 6:14).
Paul adds, whatever things (are) honorable. In his speech and in his entire behavior believers should be dignified, serious. Proper motives, manners, and morals are very important. In an environment then as now characterized by frivolity whatever things are honorable surely merit earnest consideration. See also 1 Tim. 2:2; 3:4; Titus 2:2, 7; 3:8.
So also whatever things (are) just. Having received from God righteousness both of imputation and impartation, believers should think righteous thoughts. They should, in their mind, gratefully meditate on God’s righteous acts (Rev. 15:3), appreciate righteousness in others, and should plan righteous words and deeds. Masters, for example, should take account of what is fair and square in dealing with their servants. They should realize that they, too, have an Employer in heaven (Col. 4:1). In all his planning, let the Christian ask himself, “Is this in harmony with God’s will and law?”
Next, whatever things (are) pure. The Philippians, because of their background and surroundings (both pagan, cf. Eph. 5:8, and antinomian, cf. Phil. 3:18, 19) were being constantly tempted by that which was unchaste. Let them therefore fill their minds with whatever is pure and holy. See also 2 Cor. 11:2; 1 Tim. 5:22; Titus 2:5. Cf. James 3:17; 1 John 3:3. Let them overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). A wonderful direction also for the present day!
Whatever things (are) lovely follows immediately. The word lovely, though occurring only in this one instance in the New Testament, is rather common in epitaphs. That which is lovely, amiable, pleasing, breathes love and evokes love. Let believers meditate and take into account all such things.
Whatever things (are) of good report (only occurrence of this adjective in New Testament, but see cognate noun in 2 Cor. 6:8) closes this list of six whatever’s. These things are well-sounding, appealing. Even upon non-Christians they may make a good impression. The main consideration is, however, that in their inner essence they are actually worthy of creating that impression.
Paul summarizes: If (there be) any virtue and if (there be) any praise, be thinking about these things. Nothing that is really worthwhile for believers to ponder and take into consideration is omitted from this summarizing phrase. Anything at all that is a matter of moral and spiritual excellence, so that it is the proper object of praise, is the right pasture for the Christian mind to graze in. Nothing that is of a contrary nature is the right food for his thought. It is hardly necessary to repeat that the virtue of which the apostle speaks is the fruit which grows on the tree of salvation. The trunk of this tree is faith, and its roots are imbedded in the soil of God’s sovereign, saving grace (Eph. 2:8–10; 2 Peter 1:5). To be sure, the believer is not at all blind to the fact that “there remain in man, since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Canons of Dort III and IV, article 4). In a sense even sinners do good (Luke 6:33), and even publicans love (Matt. 5:46). To deny this, in the interest of this or that theological presupposition, would be to fly in the face of the clear teaching of Scripture and the facts of everyday observation and experience. But surely when Paul told the Philippians to be constantly thinking about anything that is virtuous and worthy of praise, he, great idealist that he was, could not have been satisfied with anything that was less than goodness in the highest, spiritual sense (that which proceeds from faith, is done according to God’s law, and to his glory).
This follows also from the continuation:
9. The things which you not only learned and received but also heard and saw in me these things put into constant practice. It becomes very clear now that the thinking or meditation of which the apostle spoke in the preceding passage was not of an abstractly theoretical character. It was thinking with a purpose, and that purpose lies in the sphere of action. This is also the teaching of The Sermon on the Mount and of Christ’s parables (Matt. 7:24; 13:23; Luke 8:15). True believers hear. They meditate until they understand. Then they act upon it, putting it into constant practice, thereby showing that their house was built upon a rock.
The learning and receiving of which the apostle speaks here in verse 9 represents one idea; the hearing and seeing the other. Paul and others had taught the Philippians the matters summarized in verse 8, and they had accepted them. But the apostle had also exemplified these virtues in his own daily conduct. The Philippians had heard about this from various sources and by the mouth of ever so many messengers. Even by means of the present letter they are hearing about it, and Epaphroditus will surely fill in the details. Moreover, both on his first visit and on subsequent stop-overs they have seen these graces displayed in Paul. Hence, the apostle had a right to say, “Brothers, join in being imitators of me” (Phil. 3:17).
The result of such constant Christian practice is stated in the words, And the God of peace will be with you. The expression the God of peace here in verse 9 complements and brings to a climax the phrase the peace of God of verse 7. Not only will the Philippians who obey these instructions receive God’s most wonderful gift; they will also have as their constant Helper and Friend the Giver himself!
4:8. Continuing his strong imperative style, Paul suggested what should occupy our minds rather than anxiety and worry. Paul understood the influence of one’s thoughts on one’s life. Right thinking is the first step toward righteous living. What is right thinking? It is thinking devoted to life’s higher goods and virtues. Thus Paul picked up a practice from secular writers of his day and listed a catalog of virtues that should occupy the mind. Such virtues are not limited to the Christian community but are recognized even by pagan cultures.
True is that which corresponds to reality. Anxiety comes when false ideas and unreal circumstances occupy the mind instead of truth. Ultimately, thinking on the truth is thinking on Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6; Eph. 4:21). Noble refers to lofty, majestic, awesome things, things that lift the mind above the world’s dirt and scandal. Right refers to that which is fair to all parties involved, that which fulfills all obligations and debts. Thinking right thoughts steers one away from quarrels and dissensions to think of the needs and rights of the other party. Pure casts its net of meaning over all of life from sexual acts to noble thoughts to moral and ritual readiness for worship. Thinking on the pure leads one away from sin and shame and toward God and worship. Lovely is a rare word referring to things that attract, please, and win other people’s admiration and affection. Such thoughts bring people together in peace rather than separating them in fighting and feuding. Admirable is something worthy of praise or approval, that which deserves a good reputation. Pondering ways to protect one’s moral and spiritual image in the community leads away from worries about circumstances and possessions that project a different image to the community and which thinking cannot change.
The catalog of virtues Paul sums up in two words: excellent and praiseworthy. The first encompasses what is best in every area of life, the philosophical good for which every person should strive. Here it is especially the ethical best a person can achieve. The second term refers to that which deserves human praise. The catalog of virtues thus reflects the best life a person can live and the best reputation a person can thereby achieve in the community.
Finally, in this verse, Paul gets to his point: think on these things. That, joined with prayer will relieve all anxieties and lead one to praise God and live life the way he desires.
4:9. Is such noble thinking possible. Paul says, “Yes, it is. Look at my example.” This is not braggadocio or pride. It is the state every Christian should live in, a state of being an example for all who observe you. The example includes Paul’s teaching, the tradition he received from the apostles and passed on, his reputation for Christian living, and the Christian lifestyle they saw him practice. If they obey Paul, God will bless them with his peace (see v. 7; John 14:27; 16:33).
8 Eight words are used for the things that should fill the Christian’s thought-life. As they are ‘taken into account’ (as the word translated think means), they will shape attitudes and direct words and actions. They are the things that are true and honest, worthy and noble, just and right, pure and holy, lovely and beautiful, admirable and pleasant to hear about. The word translated excellent was the best word that classical Greek ethics had for virtue, and lastly there is the thought of what is worthy of praise and commendation.
9 Putting this into practice, in other words, living by what they know and acknowledged, would result for the Philippians in the kind of life that Paul had sought to model (see on 3:17). Not only would the peace of God be found, but also his unfailing presence (cf. 2 Cor. 13:11; 2 Thes. 3:16).
4:8 Now the apostle gives a closing bit of advice concerning the thought life. The Bible everywhere teaches that we can control what we think. It is useless to adopt a defeatist attitude, saying that we simply cannot help it when our minds are filled with unwelcome thoughts. The fact of the matter is that we can help it. The secret lies in positive thinking. It is what is now a well-known principle—the expulsive power of a new affection. A person cannot entertain evil thoughts and thoughts about the Lord Jesus at the same time. If, then, an evil thought should come to him, he should immediately get rid of it by meditating on the Person and work of Christ. The more enlightened psychologists and psychiatrists of the day have come to agree with the Apostle Paul on this matter. They stress the dangers of negative thinking.
You do not have to look very closely to find the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 8. Everything that is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy is found in Him. Let us look at these virtues one by one: True means not false or unreliable, but genuine and real. Noble means honorable or morally attractive. Just means righteous, both toward God and man. Pure would refer to the high moral character of a person’s life. Lovely has the idea of that which is admirable or agreeable to behold or consider. Of good report has also been translated “of good repute” or “fair sounding.” Virtue, of course, speaks of moral excellence; and praiseworthy, something that deserves to be commended.
In verse 7, Paul had assured the saints that God would garrison their hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus. But he is not neglectful to remind them that they, too, have a responsibility in the matter. God does not garrison the thought-life of a man who does not want it to be kept pure.
4:9 Again the Apostle Paul sets himself forth as a pattern saint. He urges the believers to practice the things which they learned from him and which they saw in his life.
The fact that this comes so closely after verse 8 is significant. Right living results from right thinking. If a person’s thought-life is pure, then his life will be pure. On the other hand, if a person’s mind is a fountain of corruption, then you can be sure that the stream that issues from it will be filthy also. And we should always remember that if a person thinks an evil thought long enough, he will eventually do it.
Those who are faithful in following the example of the apostle are promised that the God of peace will be with them. In verse 7, the peace of God is the portion of those who are prayerful; here the God of peace is the Companion of those who are holy. The thought here is that God will make Himself very near and dear in present experience to all whose lives are embodiments of the truth.
8. Finally. What follows consists of general exhortations which relate to the whole of life. In the first place, he commends truth, which is nothing else than the integrity of a good conscience, with the fruits of it: secondly, gravity, or sanctity, for τὸ σεμνόν denotes both—an excellence which consists in this, that we walk in a manner worthy of our vocation, (Eph. 4:1,) keeping at a distance from all profane filthiness: thirdly, justice, which has to do with the mutual intercourse of mankind—that we do not injure any one, that we do not defraud any one: and, fourthly, purity, which denotes chastity in every department of life. Paul, however, does not reckon all these things to be sufficient, if we do not at the same time endeavour to make ourselves agreeable to all, in so far as we may lawfully do so in the Lord, and have regard also to our good name. For it is in this way that I understand the words προσφιλῆ καὶ εὔφημα.
If any praise, that is, anything praiseworthy, for amidst such a corruption of manners there is so great a perversity in men’s judgments that praise is often bestowed upon what is blameworthy, and it is not allowable for Christians to be desirous even of true praise among men, inasmuch as they are elsewhere forbidden to glory, except in God alone. (1 Cor. 1:31.) Paul, therefore, does not bid them try to gain applause or commendation by virtuous actions, nor even to regulate their life according to the judgments of the people, but simply means, that they should devote themselves to the performance of good works, which merit commendation, that the wicked, and those who are enemies of the gospel, while they deride Christians and cast reproach upon them, may, nevertheless, be constrained to commend their deportment. The word λογίζεσθαι, however, among the Greeks, is employed, like cogitare among the Latins, to mean, meditate. Now meditation comes first, afterwards follows action.
9. What things ye have learned, and received, and heard. By this accumulation of terms he intimates, that he was assiduous in inculcating these things. “This was my doctrine—my instruction—my discourse among you.” Hypocrites, on the other hand, insisted upon nothing but ceremonies. Now, it was a dishonourable thing to abandon the holy instruction, which they had wholly imbibed, and with which they had been thoroughly imbued.
You have seen in me. Now, the main thing in a public speaker should be, that he may speak, not with his mouth merely, but by his life, and procure authority for his doctrine by rectitude of life. Paul, accordingly, procures authority for his exhortation on this ground, that he had, by his life no less than by his mouth, been a leader and master of virtues.
And the God of peace. He had spoken of the peace of God; he now more particularly confirms what he had said, by promising that God himself, the Author of peace, will be with them. For the presence of God brings us every kind of blessing: as though he had said, that they would feel that God was present with them to make all things turn out well and prosperously, provided they apply themselves to pious and holy actions.
Ver. 8.—Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true. He repeats the “finally” of ch. 3:1. He again and again prepares to close his Epistle, but cannot at once bid farewell to his beloved Philippians. He urges them to fill their thoughts with things good and holy. Christ is the Truth: all that is true comes from him; the false, the vain, is of the earth, earthy. Perhaps the verb (ἐστίν) may be emphatic. Sceptics may deny the existence of absolute truth; men may scoffingly ask, “What is truth?” Truth is real, and it is found in Christ, the Truth. Whatsoever things are honest. The word (σεμνά) occurs only here and four times in the pastoral Epistles. It is a word difficult to translate. “Honourable” or “reverend” (the renderings of the R.V.) are better equivalents than “honest.” It points to a Christian decorum, a Christian self-respect, which is quite consistent with true humility, for it is a reverence for the temple of God. Whatsoever things are just; rather, perhaps, righteous, in the widest meaning. Whatsoever things are pure; not only chaste, but free from stain or defilement of any sort. The word used here (ἁγνός) is not common in the New Testament. The adverb occurs in ch. 1:16, where it is rendered “sincerely,” and implies purity of motive. Whatsoever things are lovely (προσφιλῆ); not beautiful, but pleasing, lovable; whatsoever things would attract the love of holy souls. Whatsoever things are of good report. The word (εὔφημα) means “well-speaking” (not “well spoken of”), and so “gracious,” “attractive;” in classical Greek it means “auspicious,” “of good omen.” Of these six heads, the first two describe the subjects of devout thought as they are in themselves; the second pair relate to practical life; the third pair to the moral approbation which the contemplation of a holy life excites in good men. If there be any virtue. This word, so very common in the Greek moralists, occurs nowhere else in St. Paul. Nor does any other of the New Testament writers use it except St. Peter (1 Pet. 2:9 (in the Greek); 2 Pet. 1:3, 5). Bishop Lightfoot says, “The strangeness of the word, combined with the change of expression, εἴ τις, will suggest another explanation: ‘Whatever value may reside in your old heathen conception of virtue, whatever consideration is due to the praise of men;’ as if the apostle were anxious not to omit any possible ground of appeal.” And if there be any praise; comp. Rom. 12:17 and 2 Cor. 8:21, where St. Paul bids us “provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.” Nevertheless, in the highest point of view, the praise of the true Israelite is not of man, but of God. Think on these things; or, as in the margin of R.V., take account of. Let these be the considerations which guide your thoughts and direct your motives. The apostle implies that we have the power of governing our thoughts, and so are responsible for them. If the thoughts are ordered well, the outward life will follow.
Ver. 9.—Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do. St. Paul turns from contemplation to practical life: they must translate into action the lessons which they received from him. The verbs are aorists and refer to the time when he was among them. He taught not by word only, but by living example; they saw in him when present, and heard of him when he was absent, a pattern of the Christian life. And the God of peace shall be with you. God dwells with those who think holy thoughts and live holy lives; and with him comes the peace which is his, which he giveth (comp. Rom. 15:33).
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