A countless number of thoughts pass through our minds each day — and yet how many are of eternal value? In Phil. 4:8-9, Paul presents facets of godly thinking and motivates us to consider carefully what we think, say, and do in light of who we are in Christ.
Part 18 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Even as believers in Christ, we can sometimes have the human tendency to allow our natural thinking to overcome biblical thinking. In the previous two verses, Paul explained how God would guard our hearts and minds with peace as we brought all things to Him.
He now gives eight different aspects of godly and Christ-like thinking (I’ll give more attention to some more than others and certainly not in any wholly comprehensive way given the limitations of the post!). I think you’ll find that this is not simply a laundry list of words, but an intertwined set of characteristics to be seen in a believer.
I find it interesting that Paul begins his list with truth. If your view of what is true is corrupt, then everything else that proceeds from it will be wrong. In our world today, people want to follow the perspective that “if you believe it is true, then it is.” But what we believe can be a lie and a delusion, so it’s critical to believe the right truth. Truth is not based on humanity’s definition of it. Truth is also not what you “feel” is right or what your “heart tells you.” The standard for truth is also not determined by what you “sincerely” believe.
“If you sincerely drink poison, it will kill you: if you sincerely cut your throat, you will die. If you sincerely believe a lie, you will suffer the consequences. You must not only be sincere, but you must be right.” [Charles Spurgeon]
The Greek word (alēthḗs) that Paul uses for true means “(“what can’t be hidden”) and stresses undeniable reality when something is fully tested; i.e. it will ultimately be shown to be fact (authentic)” (HELPS Word-studies). This is the kind of truth that walks itself out in real life. It is the truth that proves itself under duress, as both James and Peter talk about (see Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:7). In other words, one big way that the truth of what we believe as Christ-followers is revealed when it is tested.
The singular and most significant truth in all of the world is the gospel of Christ:
“It is the truth that frees — the truth about Him, in His Person, in His work, in His offices, Christ as He is” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression).
In western society, we don’t think that much about honor, but in Paul’s day, honor was a central facet of life. It meant something or someone worthy of taking seriously, respecting, and revering. Paul uses this same language to describe the qualifications of elders and deacons in his pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. Here in Philippians, honorable has a wide scope, pointing not to people, but to the manner in which we live our lives, the things we do, the actions we take, and the words we speak (related: Dan. 6:4; Matt. 5:16; Eph. 5:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:12). It points to the only One who deserves honor above all else.
This elicits the question, how can we live our lives so that in every way we bring honor to the name of Christ? Because the world is watching us. They watch how we act and speak and they hold us, ironically, to higher standards than they do themselves. Why? Because we profess that we are set apart in and for Christ. They may not yet know that much about Christ, so they’re watching what words a so-called believer uses on Facebook, how they respond to criticism on Twitter, or how they handle a conflict with a co-worker on the job.
You may be thinking, what’s a post on Facebook (as an example) have to do with how people think of Christ? The answer: everything. Because how you act, online or in person, speaks of Christ. It speaks of what you think of Christ. If you are careless and angry, then chances are people are shrugging their shoulders and saying, that’s what Christians are like, no different than the world. When we honor Christ with different and godly responses to life’s difficulties and frustrations, then we show people who Christ is in us.
When Paul uses this word here, he doesn’t mean to point to the law of the land (although we are certainly called to respect that to the extent it does not oppose God’s laws), but rather to being upright, righteous, and living in accordance with and conformity to God’s standards of rightness — keeping God’s commands. The word (dikaios) is used “preeminently, of [a person] whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in heart or life; in this sense Christ alone can be called ‘just'” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
The Greek hagnós relates to the idea of being wholly set apart, of being undefiled and uncontaminated by sin. Herein is a sense of holiness and a person who is not mixed, but rather keeps themselves untainted by the world, innocent, without condemnation. We see purity walk itself out in how we live daily (related: Ps. 1:1-6; Jas. 3:17; 1 John 3:3). This doesn’t mean we are perfect, but rather that we seek to choose those things which are pleasing to God rather than gratifying our flesh and its sinful desires.
In the single occurrence of this word prosphilés in scripture, Paul conveys the sense of something that is worthy of our affection, pleasing, acceptable. For us, this is all that we see of Christ in His attributes, teachings, and ways. This is all that we have been given in scripture to follow, and the very means by which others may be attracted to us and to God’s grace in us.
A more clear way of seeing this word (euphémos) is “admirable” or “praiseworthy.” A person walking in God’s grace and seeking to live by His truth and in the power of His Spirit is someone who others see and remark upon. This concept is related to being worthy of praise. It is not that we seek the praise of man, but that in living our lives in a Christ-centered way, we gain a reputation for being a person of grace and truth.
The usage here is a broad one and denotes both general and particular moral excellence or virtue (related: 2 Pet. 1:5-8).
Worthy of Praise
For a believer, the only one who is truly worthy of praise is Christ. That said, our behavior in following after Christ and seeking God’s will in all things can be noted as praiseworthy. Again, it is not that we live in such a way as to seek praise for our own sake, but that in living, we seek to bring the praise to Christ’s name that He is worthy of having.
Thoughts and Action
It is not simply a command to think about these things (or as it can be read, “take these things to heart, consider them”) in an effort to be conformed more to Christ, but to show who Christ is to the world. All these things come together within the gospel we have believed. We are to take into account all these things, to ponder and meditate on them, and to ask God to create these kinds of characteristics and behavior in us. This is also an imperative to fill our minds with the things of God (especially His word), not the things of the world.
With all the worthless things floating around in the world, as believers we need to decide how we will invest our time and thoughts. We should not be simply a gaping maw that takes in everything that comes along, but rather we should guard our thoughts carefully.
Paul’s words here find a striking parallel in those of the prophet Isaiah. In describing the righteous man’s qualities, and his resulting safety and security in the Lord, Isaiah writes:
15 He who walks righteously and speaks with sincerity,
He who rejects unjust gain
And shakes his hands so that they hold no bribe;
He who stops his ears from hearing about bloodshed
And shuts his eyes from looking upon evil;
16 He will dwell on the heights,
His refuge will be the impregnable rock;
His bread will be given him,
His water will be sure. [Isa. 33:15-16 NAS]
It is not that we bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich, but rather that we pay careful attention to what fills our minds and occupies our time. The man here makes a choice in his behaviors not to gain in an evil way, he chooses not to invite tales of violence into his mind as though it were entertainment, and he decisively looks away from that which is evil on all levels. This is because he knows, as we should, that sin does not have its source outside us, but rather inside, as a result of what is in our hearts and minds.
We live our lives in front of the Lord and in front of a world shrouded in spiritual darkness, looking for a light. Our pattern of thinking is to lead to a pattern of action, as Paul exhorts in the next verse.
Walking the Talk
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Paul seeks to encourage these Philippian believers to put into practice all those things which they have been taught by him. As disciples of Christ, we are to be lifelong learners and to always be increasing our knowledge of Him through His word. There are two pairs here: learned and received and heard and seen. These are fairly straightforward; the first pairing refers to instruction given and the second pairing refers to the kind of learning you do by what you hear and see in someone else’s life.
D.A. Carson tells the story of how two students came to visit a man particularly gifted in apologetics. The second of the two students was sincerely interested in finding out more about Christ, and this man could have undoubtedly filled his ears with arguments. Instead he simply looked at the student and said, “watch me” and invited him into his life in every way so that he could see who this Christ really was (the story is found in D.A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians).
This is what Paul is doing, too: blending both the idea of his teaching and his life to offer himself as an example — and it is not for the first time (see Phil. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6). What we have here is a picture of discipleship: both being discipled and being a disciple.
As you walk in Christ’s ways, you will have the peace that only God can grant (related: Heb. 13:20) and the joy of fellowship with Him as Paul talks about in Phil. 4:4. It is not that God is not always there, but rather that in obedience, your fellowship remains strong and unbroken. We will have the peace of God (v. 7) from the God of peace.