By Christopher VanDusen
True believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are promised by God that, if they try to live godly lives for any significant length of time, they will suffer persecution. Not only that, but the New Testament promises that the church will often be in danger from people who pretend to teach the good news of Jesus Christ, but change it in such a way that it appeals to believers, and is able to deceive them. Further, since believers still struggle against sin, the church is always in danger of being harmed by selfishness, pride, and disunity. In the face of such dangers and troubles, what are believers to focus on? More specifically, what are they to be thinking about, and what kind of lives are they to be living? The apostle Paul answers these questions in Philippians 4:8-9.
Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned by house arrest in Rome, waiting to defend himself to the Roman Emperor against false accusations made against him by some of his Jewish enemies. While he was waiting, a man named Epaphroditus visited him, and gave him some money and news of a church in the city of Philippi, in the northern part of Greece. Paul was the one who established this church, and ever since, the church had helped him in his missionary endeavors, and he had maintained a close and affectionate relationship with them.
Hence, when Epaphroditus came to Paul, he wrote a letter in response to the generous donation from the Philippians, and the news about them. This letter is called Philippians. In the first chapter, he expresses his thanks for them; explains how he prays for them; describes his situation in Rome; and urges them to work together to promote the gospel while being mistreated for it. In the second chapter, he explains to them how to be unified and loving; how to be a good witness to their unbelieving neighbors; how he plans to send them a representative; and why he sent Epaphroditus back. In the third chapter, he warns them against false teachers; warns them against fake Christians; and explains how they are to imitate him and those like him. To begin the fourth chapter, he addresses disharmony between two of them, and instructs them to be joyful, gentle, and prayerful. After forbidding them from being anxious, and commanding them to thankfully present all their requests about all their situations to God to have His incomprehensible peace, he then sums up this section by explaining to them how they are to think, and how they are to live. This is found in Philippians 4:8-9:
“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. 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.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul gives the Philippians two main commands that include how they are to think and how they are to live:
- Ponder the Excellent Thoughts (v. 8)
- Practice Your Apostle’s Teaching (v. 9)
Ponder the Excellent Thoughts
Paul begins this passage by commanding the Philippians to ponder the excellent, or best, things in this way:
“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.”
First, he uses the word “finally” to show that he’s about to wrap up the last section of instructions in this letter. In verses 4-7, he explained to them how they were to feel and respond while suffering persecution and trouble, and promised that they would have God’s peace to guard their hearts and minds if they obeyed him. Now, he’s going to explain to them how they are to think if they are to have God’s approval and help while they have this peace. And he’s explaining this to them as his “brothers” or “brethren” in God’s family.
Before looking at the specific types of things they are to think about, let’s begin by considering the end of the sentence. What’s he commanding them to do? The ESV says the Philippians are to “think about these things”. This is a poor translation, as the Greek word translated “think” is more descriptive. It was used to describe the act of calculating, or of taking account of things. Hence, it not only involves thinking, but careful thinking. Therefore, a better word to use would be “ponder” or “dwell on”. In fact, the New American Standard Bible, the Christian Standard Bible, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible all use the words “dwell on” to translate this word.
So, what does Paul tell the Philippians to ponder? First, “whatever is true”. Paul begins there because if an idea of false, or partly true, it’s not worth dwelling on. But what exactly does it mean that something’s true? It literally means that it accords with the truth about it. And what is the standard of truth? The Lord Jesus Himself says what it is in John 17, where He tells His Father that “your Word is truth”. Hence, whatever revelation comes from God is the standard of truth. This revelation is found in our innate knowledge of truth that God has given to us in our consciences, the truth we can see from nature, and more importantly, in the Scriptures of God’s prophets and apostles, known as the Bible. Hence, anything that is consistent with God’s revelation of what’s true is true. Anything that contradicts God’s revelation is false.
The second thing Paul tells the Philippians to ponder is “whatever is honorable”. The Greek word translated “honorable” literally means something that deserves reverence or respect. Thus, some other good words would be “noble” or “respectable”. They all refer to something that demands our serious recognition and admiration.
Third, Paul includes “whatever is just”. The Greek word translated “just” could also be translated “right” or “equitable”. It refers to something that conforms to God’s standard of living for people. And what is that standard? Jesus defined it as the two greatest commandments: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus Himself is “the Lord” our God, so obedience to Him is the standard of right living.
Fourth, Paul includes “whatever is pure”. The Greek word translated “pure” comes from the word that’s translated “holy”. However, this variation of that word literally means “clean” or “pure”. It refers to something that is separate from what God considers impure or unclean. This means anything that is sinful in any way is impure.
Fifth, Paul includes “whatever is lovely”. The Greek word for “lovely” literally means something that pleases someone, or provokes love from him. Another good translation would be “beautiful”. Not only does Paul call the Philippians to ponder things that please God, but also things that please them — although if they are Christians, then the things listed before will please them in some way.
Sixth, Paul includes “whatever is commendable”. The Greek word here literally means something that has a good reputation, or is well-spoken of. Another good translation would be “reputable”. Hence, Paul wants the Philippians thinking about things that are even respected or admired by people in general.
Seventh, Paul says “if there is any excellence”. The word translated “excellence” was used in the Greek language to describe something that was a moral or personal virtue, or good quality. Thus, it might be more accurate to translate this word as moral excellence, as some popular translations do. The idea is not the best things in general, but the best qualities of persons.
Finally, Paul includes “if there is anything worthy of praise”. Obviously, this is self-explanatory, but it’s significant that he ends with this description. This hints at the idea that right thinking leads to right affections and speaking. Also, all praise of anything ought to ultimately go to God, since He is the Author of all these excellent ideas, and they’re all found in Him.
Practice Your Apostle’s Teaching
Paul’s last major command for the Philippians in this letter is to practice what they learned from him, which he gives in verse 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.”
In the beginning of this sentence, he describes the way in which the Philippians learned how to live from him. First, they “learned” it from him. That is, he taught Christian living to them, and they heard it for the first time. Second, they “received” it from him. This word describes the act of accepting an idea as true, and embracing it as a part of your beliefs and thinking. Third, they “heard” his teaching. The Greek word not only means that they simply heard Paul speak words, but that they understood what he was saying because they were carefully thinking about what he said. Finally, they saw his teaching “in” him. The Greek word translated “seen” doesn’t just mean that they looked at Paul doing things, but that they watched him live his life before them, so they knew what kind of life he lived.
So, that’s how the Philippians learned Paul’s teaching on how to live, but what exactly did Paul teach them? First and foremost, he taught them about the Lord Jesus Christ, who is their King and Master. By explaining who Jesus is, and what He did, was doing, and was going to do, Paul taught the Philippians why they were to live like Christ, and how to live like Christ. Second, Paul taught the Philippians what Christ commanded and taught them to do, and also what Scripture taught them to do. Again, Paul didn’t just tell these things to the Philippians, but he lived them in front of them, so they could see how to live as imitators of Christ. All these things that he taught them, he now commands them to put into practice. The word “practice” doesn’t just mean to try these things out, but to commit oneself to doing them as part of one’s lifestyle, or way of life.
Paul ends this passage by giving the Philippians a wonderful promise. Before this passage, he had promised them that, if they thankfully presented all their requests to God about their situations, then God’s peace would guard, or protect, their “hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Now, he promises that if they’ll practice all the things he taught them, then the God of peace will be with them. By saying this, he means that they’ll have God’s peace, or spiritual and social well-being and peace, and that God will show Himself in their lives by enabling them to do what He’s commanded them to do — to show the unbelieving world what peace with God looks like, and to offer His terms of peace to it.
Ponder and Practice the Best Things
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
Do you ponder what’s true, or do you ponder what’s false, or partly true?
Do you ponder what’s respectable, or do you ponder what’s unrespectable, dishonorable, silly, or foolish?
Do you ponder what’s right or just, or do you ponder what’s wrong or unjust?
Do you ponder what’s pure or clean, or do you ponder what’s impure, unclean, or profane?
Do you ponder what’s lovely or beautiful, or do you ponder what’s ugly, disgusting, or repulsive?
Do you ponder what’s commendable or reputable, or do you ponder what most Christians hate or speak bad about?
Do you ponder the excellent qualities of persons, or do you ponder the bad or evil qualities of persons?
Do you ponder what’s praiseworthy, or do you ponder what’s worthy of condemnation?
Finally, Paul commanded the Philippians to practice what he had taught them by word and example. Although we can’t obey this command as it was originally given, since Paul is in heaven, we can take this as a principle of God’s Word. Since Paul was one of many apostles, or founders, of the church, we can infer that we are to learn from the teaching and example of all the apostles in the New Testament. Therefore, from Paul’s command for the Philippians, we can draw out the implication that all Christians are to learn and receive the teaching of the New Testament, and put it into practice. Paul promises that if Christians do this, the God of peace will be with them.
Not only that, but we can make a further application of this teaching that we are to also learn from our own Christian leaders who are spiritually mature, and teach us God’s Word. Not only are we to follow the teaching and practice of the apostles, but also the teaching and practice of our qualified Christian leaders whom we know, as the Philippians knew Paul.
So, what do you ponder, and how do you live? If your thinking is only about the exact opposite of what Paul commands the Philippians to think about, or if you’re not trying to practice the teaching of Jesus and His apostles, then the God of peace isn’t with you, you’re in rebellion against Him, and He’s angry with you as His enemy. The good news is that He sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life, and then to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve from God for our rebellion against Him. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the King of the universe. He now commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Jesus as their King and Savior from sin and God’s wrath to receive His forgiveness and peace, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and forever punish His enemies for their rebellion against Him in a place of fire and darkness. Please make sure that you’ve acknowledged your evil, changed your mind about God and Jesus, and are trusting only in Jesus as your risen King and Substitute on the cross for God’s forgiveness, peace, and mercy. He promises to completely forgive all who do this, and to give them peace and life with Him.
Most Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.