On Good Thoughts and Following Paul (4:8-9)

With a finally, brothers [and sisters], Paul brings the hortatory part of the letter to conclusion. There remains but the acknowledgment of their gift. These final two sentences need to be held tightly together, not only because their structural similarity suggests as much, but especially because the truth of the one is to be assessed in light of the other.

For many who were raised in evangelical traditions, verse 8 ought to be a breath of fresh air. Contrary to what is often taught, implicitly if not explicitly, there is a place in Christian life for taking into serious account the best of the world in which we live, even though it may not be (perish the thought!) overtly Christian. Or to put it another way, it is decidedly not Paul's view that only what is explicitly Christian (be it literature, art, music, movies or whatever) is worth seeing or hearing. Truth and beauty are where you find them. But at all times the gospel is the ultimate paradigm for what is true, noble or admirable. Or perhaps you have not noticed that many truly great movies (e.g., Spitfire Grill) find their greatness because they tell our story (redemption through self-sacrifice), probably without even knowing it.

There is nothing else like verse 8 in Paul's extant letters. It reflects a world with which the Philippians were familiar before they had ever become followers of Christ and friends of Paul; for although some of these words are common stock in Jewish wisdom, they are especially the language of Hellenistic moralism (and would be quite at home in Epictetus's Discourses). In effect Paul tells the Philippian believers to take into account the best of their Greco-Roman heritage, as long as it has moral excellence and is praiseworthy. Verse 9 puts that into perspective: they comply with the first set of exhortations by putting into practice what they have learned from Paul as teacher and have seen modeled in his life. The whole concludes with the promise of God's abiding presence as the God of peace.

The verb logizomai ordinarily means "to reckon" in the sense of "take into account," rather than simply to think about. Since the first four words already point to what is virtuous (NIV excellent) and praiseworthy, Paul most likely adds the proviso because he intends them to select out what is morally excellent and praiseworthy from whatever belongs to the world around them, and to do so on the basis of Christ.

They should thus give consideration first to whatever is true, a word that is narrowly circumscribed in Paul's letters, finding its measure in God (Rom 1:18, 25) and the gospel (Gal 2:5; 5:7). Noble is a word that most often has a "sacred" sense ("revered" or "majestic") but here probably denotes "honorable," "noble" or "worthy of respect." Like truth, right for Paul 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. Pure is a word that originated in the religious cultus, where what had been sanctified for the temple could not have blemishes. Here it has to do with whatever is not besmirched or tainted in some way by evil. Like truth (1:18), it occurs earlier in this letter (1:17), referring to the "impure" motives of those wishing to afflict Paul.

With the fifth and sixth words (lovely and admirable) we step off New Testament turf altogether—linguistically, at least—onto the unfamiliar ground of Hellenism. Nonetheless, these words remind us that common grace is a New Testament reality. Lovely refers to what people consider "lovable" in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward. 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. It 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 admirable as well as moral. Admirable, although not quite a synonym of lovely, belongs to the same general category of "virtues." Rather than referring to 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: if anything is excellent, if anything is praiseworthy. Arete (excellent) is the primary Greek word for "virtue" or "moral excellence" and is generally avoided by the LXX translators. Although it is not found elsewhere in Paul, the present usage, along with "contentment" in verse 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 to conduct that is in keeping with God's own righteousness. While not inherent in verse 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.

It is not surprising that the concluding exhortations in this letter should end on the note of imitation. In effect verse 9 summarizes, as well as concludes, the letter. Paul's concern throughout has been the gospel, especially its lived-out expression in the world. To get there he has informed the Philippians of his response to his own present suffering (1:12-26), reminded them of the "way of Christ" (2:6-11) and told his own story (3:4-14), all of which were intended to appeal, warn and encourage them to steadfastness and unity in the face of opposition. Now he puts it to them plainly, as the final proviso to the preceding list of virtues that they should take into account. Read that list, he now tells them, in light of what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and above all else put these things (what you have learned, etc.) into practice.

Learned and received reflect Paul's Jewish tradition, where what is learned is thus received by students; heard and seen in me appeared in this way in 1:30 in the context of their common struggle of suffering for Christ's sake. Given the overall context of this letter, one may rightly assume that Paul is once again calling the Philippians to the kind of cruciform existence (see note on 1:11) he has been commending and urging throughout. Only as they are "conformed to Christ's death" as Paul himself seeks continually to be, even as they eagerly await the final consummation at Christ's coming, will they truly live what is excellent and praiseworthy from Paul's distinctively "in Christ" perspective.

The exhortations are thus finished; so Paul rightly concludes with a "wish of peace," which here takes the form of ultimate benediction, that the God of peace will be with you. The ascription God of peace is derived from the Old Testament; every occurrence in Paul's letters is in contexts where strife or unrest is close at hand (cf. Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 14:33; 2 Thess 3:16). Although "strife" is hardly the word to describe the Philippian scene, he nonetheless signs off with this affirmation, perhaps significantly so in light of the repeated exhortation to "have the same mindset."

Will be with you reflects the motif of God's presence, the desire for which determines so much in Jewish piety and theology, both in the Old Testament and in the intertestamental period. For Paul, and the rest of the New Testament, the way God is now present is by his Spirit, who is the fulfillment of the promises that God will put his Spirit into his people's hearts so that they will obey him (Ezek 36:27). In Paul's understanding this is how the God of peace will be—and already is—with you. And the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Phil 4:7).

These concluding exhortations call us to embrace what is good wherever we find it, including the culture with which we are most intimately familiar, but to do so in a discriminating way, the key to which is the gospel Paul preached and lived—about a crucified Messiah, whose death on a cross served both to redeem us and to reveal the character of God into which we are continually being transformed.

This is an especially relevant word in our postmodern, media-saturated world, where truth is relative and morality is up for grabs. The most common response to such a culture, unfortunately, is not discrimination but rejection or absorption. This text suggests a better way, that we approach the marketplace, the arts, the media, the university looking for what is true and noble and admirable, but that we do so with a discriminating eye and heart, for which the Crucified One serves as the template. Indeed, if one does not consider carefully and then discriminate on the basis of the gospel, what is rejected very often are the mere trappings, the more visible expressions, of the "world," while its antigospel values (relativism, materialism, hedonism, nationalism, individualism, to name but a few) are absorbed into the believer through cultural osmosis. This text reminds us that the head counts for something, after all; but it must be a sanctified head, ready to practice the gospel it knows through what has been learned and received.

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