The Christian life is not an ivory tower affair – something merely academic that sounds good in theory, but has little effect on one’s practice. The new life in Christ is an ethical one that begins in the mind, grips the will and affections, and flows over into one’s life. Thoughts give birth to deeds and the human mind is not a vacuum; therefore, believers must mentally feed on virtuous and morally beautiful objects and people. Paul puts before them an exhortation to this effect in verses 8 and 9.
Having dealt with the expulsion of distracting anxiety through prayer and communion with the Lord, the apostle next turns to profitable things to fill Christians’ minds. As Hole writes, ‘Care being driven out of our hearts there is room for all that is good to come in’.1 Moule eloquently adds, ‘He begs them to give to their minds, thus “safeguarded” by the peace of God, all possible pure and healthful material to work upon, of course with a view to practice. Let them reflect on, take account of, estimate aright … all that was true and good; perhaps specially in contrast to the subtle perversions of moral principle favoured by the persons described above (3. 18, 19), who dreamed of making an impossible divorce between the spiritual and the moral’.2 Taking their worries, needs, and desires to their sovereign High Priest in glory, they can then turn to the tremendously important work of meditation. Not emptying their minds, as the modern Eastern notion has it, but filling them with wholesome material for beneficial reflection and ethical living.
The ‘finally’ of verse 8 moves the reader to a new section, but does not entirely change the subject. The thought-flow of verses 7-9 is shown by Martin,
‘Finally, to loipon (cf. 3:1) may be taken as little more than “and so”, although it may have a logical connection with the foregoing verses and be translated: “it follows then, in this connection’. On the second view, the celebrated list of ethical terms, which finally introduces, will continue the thought of the peace of God in verses 8–9. This gives a good sense to the apostle’s admonition. If inner tranquillity is to be enjoyed continually and its influence shed abroad certain steps must be taken. The present verse is governed by the verb think, logizesthe, which means more than “keep in mind” (Moffatt). It is rather “take into account (logos), reflect upon and then allow these things to shape your conduct”. The following verse is a continuation of Paul’s message with a call to explicit action: “put it into practice"’3
In short, right praying leads to the enjoyment of God’s peace, which in turn leads to right thinking, ending in right living.
Like the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5. 22-25, the list of edifying qualities in verse 8 presents different aspects of the same thing, the components of Christian thinking. Finding ‘whatever’ before each virtue links them together in a comprehensive chain. As one writer puts it, ‘The entire compass of Christian morality is here designed to be presented before them. It is not different objects, but one and the same moral nature, which the apostle here denotes in its various relations. The first four predicates denote this moral nature in itself, the two last, according to the moral sentiments of approbation which it elicits’.4 Thus, believers are not to pick and choose from this list; instead, they must mentally chew over each of these sublime attributes.
Things that are ‘true’ appropriately head the list. More than just factually true, the word connotes a moral dimension of character. Kent explains, ‘“True” (alethe) has the sense of valid, reliable, and honest – the opposite of false. It characterizes God (Rom 3:4) and should also characterize believers’.5 Another amplifies his description, saying, ‘[It] signifies what is “morally true,” as at 1 Cor. 5:8, where it is joined with eilikriueia (sincerity) … So also Eph. 4:21, where Harless observes, “The good is always at the same time the true, the evil is always at the same time the untrue”’6 Finally, in his extremely helpful way Moule adds, ‘Both in the sense of truth-speaking and truth-being. Truthfulness of word, and sincerity of character, are absolutely indispensable to holiness. Nothing is more unsanctified than a double meaning, or a double purpose, however “pious” the ‘fraud”’7 Believers must be open and transparent, living in a way that reflects the Son of God who is the truth, John 14. 6.
‘Honest’ is the next term on the list. Many translate it ‘noble’ NKJV, or ‘honourable’ ESV; while the New English Translation has ‘worthy of respect’. One lexicon defines it as, ‘Serious; of good character, honourable, worthy, respectable’.8 So the believer’s thoughts ought to dwell on high things rather than low, and on what commends respectful attitudes. As Ash remarks, ‘Thought should not centre on the cheap and vulgar’.9 In addition to being a necessary characteristic of mature Christian men, Titus 2. 2, it is also one of the qualifications for deacons and their wives, 1 Tim. 3. 8, 11.
‘Just’ is rendered ‘right’ by some, e.g., NASB; it ‘means to be just, both with regard to men and in obeying the divine standard’.10 My father, who was also a believer, used to tell me that the people that he had the most trouble with in business were professing Christians. This sad testimony ought not to be! Saints should live up to that name in maintaining their testimony in school, at work, and at home. A sense of decency and fairness must pervade the Christian’s life.
Purity may seem passé, and exceedingly rare in the modern world, but it must characterize the believer’s thoughts. Louw and Nida define it as ‘pertaining to being without moral defect or blemish and hence pure–'pure, without defect’.11 Eadie adds this definition, ‘neither tainted nor corrupt–free from all debasing elements, clear in nature, transparent in purpose, leaving no blot on the conscience and no stain on the character’.12 1 John chapter 3 verse 3 uses it to describe the Lord Jesus. It is used in exhortations to Christian women, Titus 2. 5; 1 Pet. 3. 2; as well as to leaders like Timothy, 1 Tim. 5. 22. It is also the first adjective describing the wisdom from above, Jas. 3. 17. It is rendered ‘chaste’, depicting the church as a bride, 2 Cor. 11. 2. Other than the passage under consideration, it also occurs in 2 Corinthians chapter 7 verse 11, bringing its total New Testament appearances to eight. Yet its importance far exceeds the number of times it occurs in that sacred volume. In the contemporary scene that is so saturated by pornography, vulgar humour, and debased images erroneously branded as art, purity makes a Christian stand out from the defiled and corrupting world in which he lives. Our reading, viewing, and listening habits must be consistent with the pure things with which we are to fill our minds.
‘Lovely’ conveys the concept of amiability. According to Moule, ‘of good report’ is ‘… sweet-spoken; “loveliness” in the special respect of kindly and winning speech’.13 As if this is not enough, Paul says, if there is anything else virtuous and praiseworthy to think about, v. 8, then by all means, set your mind upon these things. Each of the named qualities that he lists is chiefly found in the Lord Jesus Christ. By contemplating Him, one allows these salutary ideals to course through our mind. Furthermore, many of these things are to be observed in the lives of the biblical heroes of the faith. Even more recent Christians may furnish opportunities to mentally dwell on these virtues. In reading biographies of Whitefield, the Wesleys, McCheyne, Spurgeon, Watchman Nee, Jim Elliot, Amy Carmichael, and other modern believers, much purity, nobility, and loveliness come before the thoughtful reader.
In verse 9, Paul reminds the believers to practise what he had expounded to them from the scriptures, ‘what they had learned and received’. They were to internalize it – not just grasp it intellectually, but also receive it, in the sense of making it part of their moral framework. What is more, they are to remember what they ‘had heard and seen’ in the apostle’s personal behaviour and example. Biblical Christianity is meant to be passed on from generation to generation. This includes teaching the fundamentals of the faith, but also involves instruction by example. It is passing the truth from spiritual father to spiritual son, and from mother in the faith to daughter in the faith. The apostle backed up his public teaching with a commensurate private example. Modern Christians must follow his example as well, passing on the apostles’ doctrine to others, while living in fellowship with ‘the God of peace’, v. 9.
F.B. Hole, Philippians. Electronic ed., accessed here: http://biblecentre.org/commentaries/fbh_54_philippians.htm#Philippians4 Accessed on 28/11/11.
H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Philippians, With Introduction and Notes. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893, pg. 114.
Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 11. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987, pp. 177-178.
Augustus Wiesinger, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament by Dr. Hermann Olshausen, Volume 5. Translated New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co., 1857-1859, pg. 451.
Homer A. Kent, Jr., Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Philippians. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1978, electronic ed.
Wiesinger, pg. 451.
Moule, pg. 114 [Italics original].
Barclay Moon Newman, A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies, 1993, pg. 162.
Anthony L. Ash, The College Press NIV Commentary: Philippians. College Press Publishing Co., 2000, pg. 57.
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible societies, 1996, pg. 3.
John Eadie, Commentary On The Greek Text On The Epistle Of Paul to the Philippians. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859, pg. 258.
H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Philippians, With Introduction and Notes. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893, pg. 115.