This sermon was originally preached in 2018.
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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 ESV
Having discussed how we should be, how to overcome anxiety, and about the peace of God, he now addresses how we should think. Paul gives a list of virtuous concepts that we should turn our thoughts upon, while also urging us again to imitate how he conformed his life to the message of the gospel.
THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS // VERSE 8
Although Paul has already used the word finally, we truly are approaching the conclusion of the letter now. Within this verse, the apostle takes a philosophical list of virtues and encourages the Philippians to turn their thoughts toward things of that nature. Before we discuss the significance of thinking about these certain things, let us address the virtues themselves. The listing of virtues was a common practice of both Greek and Roman philosophers, so Paul is speaking to this predominately Gentile congregation in language that they understand well.
Yet also notice that none of these virtues are explicitly Christian in nature. People say true statements all the time without subscribing to Christianity. People act honorably without worshiping Christ. People behave justly without submitting the God of justice. People refrain from some sins even though they care nothing for the purity of living for Jesus. And we can keep going through the list. These virtues are not exclusively Christian.
Why then is Paul telling the Philippians to turn their thoughts toward these virtues? While they can easily be found outside of Christ’s followers, each of these virtues flows from the hand of God. We may likewise find lovely works of art produced by those who reject Jesus, but Christ is still the ultimate source of all beauty. Lovely things can only be produced by the common grace that God has poured upon all of mankind. Justice can only be served because the God of justice has placed His law within our hearts. We, therefore, rejoice gladly in excellent, commendable, and praise-worthy behavior since it reveals that God has not left humanity entirely to our own devices. Even those who claim to hate Him still contain noble qualities due to His grace upon them.
So as followers of Him who is fully true, excellent, honorable, just, lovely, pure, commendable, and worthy of praise, we rejoice wherever we behold His fingerprints upon His creation. In fact, we must actively look for those very fingerprints. This takes wisdom and discernment. Secular media (be it television, film, or music) is not forbidden to us, yet we must take care to search for redeeming virtues such as these within them. For instance, a horror movie called A Quiet Place was released earlier this year. While some might be quick to argue that Christians should never consume horror films, this film was truly about the love of a family as displayed through a horrific circumstance. Or we could turn to one of my favorite films Life Is Beautiful, which is about a Jewish father protecting his son by turning their time in a Nazi concentration camp into a game. Neither films are Christian, yet they burst with the selfless love of a father that is ultimately found in God our Father. We, therefore, do not need to consume purely Christian media, but we must take great care what we do absorb.
But why is it important to think about these things at all? What is the significance of turning our thoughts toward them? We should first note that think about could also be translated as calculate, take into account, deliberate, or meditate. Thus, the apostle is urging us to thinking long and intently over these things, to meditate on them. This is important because where the mind goes, the heart tends to follow. Whatever we think about ultimately ends up grabbing our affections as well. Thus, the battle for our thoughts is a battle for our very souls. We set our “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2) because “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). We must, therefore, refuse to be conformed to this world but rather be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). We do this because God keeps at peace the mind that is focused upon Him (Isaiah 26:3). If our hearts belong to God, our thoughts must be given to Him as well.
We can do this through the practice of meditation. Few Christians today give much consideration to the art of meditation, which is unfortunate since the Psalms particularly urge us to be in constant meditation upon the Scriptures. Perhaps no one gave more thought to the act of meditation than the Puritans. They sought to bring God’s Word into every realm of their lives, and meditation was one of the prime means for accomplishing this task. In general, they designated two kinds of meditation: spontaneous and deliberate. Spontaneous meditation is the frequent but short pondering of Scripture throughout the normal course of the day. Deliberate meditation, on the other hand, was a purposeful and extended time of thinking deeply upon a passage or phrase of the Bible. Joel Beeke offers a guide for how they deliberately meditated upon Scripture in his book Puritan Theology. While it is certainly worth imitating, the exact method of meditating upon God’s Word is not nearly as important as actually doing it.
But why am I now speaking of meditating on Scripture whenever Paul is talking about virtues in general? Without God’s Word, we cannot know what is really true. We cannot know what things are truly honorable. And we can continue through the list. We cannot find these virtues throughout daily life, unless we first see them revealed in the character of God Himself. God alone is supremely true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worth of praise, and Scripture is His divine revelation to us. Thus, it is through Scripture that we are able to get a vision of our majestic and holy LORD.
PRACTICE THESE THINGS // VERSE 9
Once again Paul is not content with the Philippians knowing the proper doctrine; they must also practice God’s truth in their lives. Verse 9 naturally flows from verse 8 because godly thinking must lead us to godly living, and Paul is again offering himself as an example. As we discussed in verse 17 of chapter three, the apostle certainly knew that he was an imperfect role model, yet he was bold enough to encourage others to imitate him as he imitated Christ. But I am ahead of myself. Before we discuss the importance of practicing these things, we must establish what things we must practice.
Paul is here calling us to practice the things that we have learned, received, heard, and seen in him. The first three (learned, received, and heard) pertain to the apostle’s teaching, while the fourth (seen) regards his lifestyle. Obviously, the greatest weight is placed upon the message of the gospel that Paul taught since no one can perfectly live a life for Christ. Nevertheless, Paul does still urge them to follow after the way of living that they have seen in him. Although we cannot know the apostle personally today (for obvious reasons), many of his words and deeds are preserved for us by the Holy Spirit for us to imitate. But the principle still stands for us to follow with our brothers and sisters today. We must look to imitate the life and teaching of those who are more mature in the faith than we are, and we must be ready for those less mature than ourselves to imitate our words and deeds as well. This is the process of discipleship with Christ’s church. We follow one another even as we all follow Christ.
But what does it mean to practice these things? Practice here could also be translated as exercise or doing something repeatedly or habitually. The idea is that we must this way of life found in Christ and displayed by his disciples must become deeply ingrained into how we live our lives, so that others might also be able to learn from us as well. But this is work. Like physical exercise, practicing godliness is difficult and requires discipline. By the sweat of our brow, we fight our corrupt and sinful nature in order to submit it to God’s ways. It is a laborious struggle against ourselves. Yet struggle we must. In his letter to Timothy, Paul explicitly compares our growth in godliness to physical exercise:
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.1 Timothy 4:7-8
We practice and train ourselves in the commands of the Bible because they are valuable to us, both here and in the life to come. O brothers and sisters, obedience to God’s Word does not happen spontaneously. We must fight to obey. We must train ourselves to walk in godliness. We must practice what we learn, receive, hear, and see in and from the apostles.
Yet allow me to give a brief warning: if you seek to do these things in your own strength, you will have anything but the peace that Paul guarantees in the final phrase of verse 9. In fact, I believe that the Paul’s claim that the God of peace will be with you is not a benefit earned by obeying the commands of verses 8 and 9; instead, it is the promise by which we are able to accomplish those commands. Only because God Himself is dwelling within us, granting us His peace, can we practice how we are taught to live. God’s presence gives us the strength to obey Him; it is not our reward for having obeyed Him. This is the message of the gospel. We cannot be good enough to earn God’s favor, but Jesus earned it for us. We could not pay back the penalty of our sin, but Jesus did so with His own blood. We could not obey God’s commands, but Jesus obeyed them perfectly on our behalf.
This truth does not contradict our command to practice and train in godliness. Having Jesus obey God’s commands for us does not negate our need to obey now. Instead, the gospel ought to give fuel to our desire to obey God’s Word. Why is this? Because of the gospel, we are no longer haunted by the fear that we are not good enough. We no longer live under the dread that we have not done enough to merit God’s favor toward us. We already have God’s favor. We can never be good enough, but Jesus can never NOT be enough. The gospel, therefore, removes the burden from obedience. We are free to obey with joy, not out of fear. And because we are now reconciled to God through Christ, we have the Spirit dwelling within us, empowering us to follow Him.
Make no mistake. We must work, even working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but we must do so knowing that we can only do so because God is both willing and working within us. Each day we will live within that tension, striving forward while remembering that only God can give us the ability to strive forward.
Are you living within that tension? Are you meditating on the virtues of life that emanate from God’s own character? Are putting into practice what you learn from God’s Word? Are you placing your complete hope and peace upon the finished work of Jesus Christ?