Never in my lifetime have I experienced the polarization, division, anger, mischaracterization, slander and spirit of all-out war quite like I have in 2020.
It really seems true to me that what we are experiencing and witnessing in our country at this time is the outcome of the war of the minds and hearts of humans who are trying to navigate life amidst the brokenness and frailty of humanity.
It has been quite the year so far for all of us in the American church. And I feel a unique provision from the Lord in this text this morning. We need a fresh drink of water from God’s Word.
Philippians 4:8 – 9. is all about the command, the model and the promise…
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.
When I refuse to think on unbiblical things it’s because I am freely choosing to think on biblical things.
Biblical discipleship revolves around learning, receiving, hearing and practicing the model/example of Christ.
The promise of the gospel is that the model is trustworthy and the command is doable by the power of the crucified, risen and returning Christ.
What is true? What is honorable? What is just? What is pure? What is lovely? What is commendable? What is excellent? What is worthy of praise? These are questions of the heart and mind which inevitably translate into the decisions and behavior of our lives.
Consequently, we also ask, what is not true? What is not honorable? What is unjust? What is impure? What is unlovely? What is not commendable? What is not excellent? What is not worthy of praise?
Our no to one thing is consequentially a yes to another thing. Our warm reception of something is effectively a cold rejection of another thing; thinking as we ought to demands the discipline of refusal.2
My warm reception of a thought, a desire, a behavior or an act may inevitably be a cold rejection of a contrary thought, desire, behavior or action. Once again, this is a basic description of the disciplined mindful and heart-felt reflection and consequential outcome of every person who has ever lived. This is to say that human existence is a complex trichotomy of heart, mind and soul, displayed in our day-to-day physical lives.
So, how do you know what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise? How do you know what is untrue, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, uncommendable, lacking excellence and not worthy of praise?
Most believers would agree that Christians are to answer these questions according to the Bible. But what are we to do when we are confronted with other Christians, other human beings, who are asking the same questions but are landing in a place of contradiction to our own convictions?
Sadly, sometimes, in the church, we become even more entrenched in our bubble-like division, we mischaracterize our opponents, we work to fortify our ideology (not as often our theology), and we retreat or advance depending on our levels of passion for or conviction of what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.
In effect, we think on these things (Phil. 4:8) in the recesses of our hearts and minds and then we seek to live our lives in accordance with those things that we believe to be good and true.
This is the battlefield of the mind and no one wants to be double-minded in this war for as James the brother of Jesus rightly states, Christians are called to “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (Js. 4:8).
The battlefield of the mind is ripe with potholes of sinful impurity that divides the conviction of the mind and no war gets won well when the house of the mind is divided against itself.
The apostle Paul appears to agree with this throughout his letter to the Philippian church; he knows that the threat of double-mindedness, a house divided against itself, exists not just out there somewhere in some other church or just in the dirty old world but within the church at Philippi; especially evidenced in previous verses where he gently but resolutely confronted disagreement and division between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2 – 7).
A mind, a family, a marriage, a team, a church, a country, will stand when it is divided against itself.
And let’s not forget that the apostle Paul has slowly built his case throughout the entire book beginning with his purpose and call for Christians to live their lives as citizens of heaven in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:27).
From that purpose he identified three clusters of major issues; self-centeredness and pride (2:3 – 4), complaining and arguing (2:14 – 15); and disagreement and division (4:2 – 3). As Paul confronts these three clustered-issues he also gives three remedies; Christians are to put on the mind of Christ (2:5 – 8); Christians are to work out their salvation in Christ (2:12 – 13); and Christians are to stand firm in the joy and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ (4:1, 1 – 7).
Throughout all of this we learn the unmistakable truth that a winsome ethical testimony is a powerful evangelistic force in an unbelieving world.3
And yet, we are left with the dilemma of trying to rightly and wisely discern how to live out what we believe is actually true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise; sometimes and oftentimes in ways that are counter or contrary to other well-meaning, professing Christians as we reject what they believe without rejecting them as human beings who’ve been created in the image of God and who possess the Spirit of the same living God that we do.
Remember that this is the immediate context of Paul’s words in verses 8 – 9; conflict, disagreement and division had seeped in through the virtual walls of the Philippian church.
How are we supposed to synthesize all that Paul has said here? How do we live our lives as citizens of heaven in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we resist self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreeing and division? How do we put on the mind of Christ, work out our salvation in Christ, and stand firm in the joy and peace of Christ?
Paul’s simple answer to these complex questions from last week is that Christians must fortify themselves in the gospel by running to the four-walled fortress of peace twice-over, joy, reasonableness and prayer. And we will find this gospel-fortress at the foot of a bloody cross, in the doorway of an empty tomb, in light of the hope of heaven (4:2 – 7).
And just in case Paul hasn’t been clear enough, he now explains that Christians must commit themselves to thinking on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise (4:8).
But Paul doesn’t just leave us with a command (4:8) about how we are to think. He also gives us a model (4:9) or an example of what this looks like and then he gives us a promise (4:9) to bank on if we listen and act accordingly.
Information and examples are useless if they do not lead to change or transformation; transformation is only as good as the promise that it flows from.
What was once true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise, for the unregenerated heart and mind, will necessarily be transformed at the moment of salvation but it is not yet perfect because we are not yet in heaven and until we arrive in heaven we are in continual need of sanctification (growth, change, transformation) as we are conformed more and more into the image of Christ Jesus who is the absolute pristine essence of Paul’s command, model and promise. Christ, crucified, risen and returning is at the center of Paul’s command, model and promise.
It is no secret that Christ crucified, risen and returning is the center of all of Paul’s theology; indeed, the entire Bible. Therefore, I believe that if we are to receive the command, the model and the promise of this passage in a transformative way then we must receive the command, the model and the promise of this text through the heart and mind centering filter of the crucified, risen and returning Christ.
#1: THE COMMAND (V. 8)
The command of this text is to think on these things, “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” (v. 8).
Once again, the natural conclusion of this line of thinking is that when think on these things we reject thinking on things that are contrary in nature.
When I reject something as unbiblical it’s because I refuse to think on unbiblical things, and I chose to think on biblical things instead.
To think on truth is to meditate on Christ, the Word of God and the gospel; to think on what is honorable is to chew on whatever is morally excellent, dignified and noble; to think on what is just is to think about righteous and right things; to think on what is pure is to ponder whatever is not tainted with evil (including sexual impurity); to think on what is lovely is to be captivated by moral and aesthetic beauty; to think on whatever is commendable is to be preoccupied with high moral conduct; we are to let our minds continually dwell on, ponder on or think on things that are morally excellent and praiseworthy without ceasing.4
This is the command. It is very non-negotiable and black and white; no relativism here. But obviously there will be some nuance depending on the circumstances of your life.
For instance, while all truth is always true, there may be some truth that is not necessarily applicable or helpful to my life right now; there are true principles about how to treat your spouse that may be good building blocks for a potential future spouse for a single person that aren’t any less true but may get less thinking time because they aren’t helpful right now.
I could work through each one here, but the point is, while truth is not relative at all, it is practical.
At the same time, there are choices that each of make on a daily basis when it comes to our thinking.
When I chose not to fill my mind with some kind of social media, blog post, video, movie, music, art or ideology, I am actively engaging the battlefield of the mind in a way that seems true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy.
Bottom line, the command is to look to Christ, God’s Word and the Gospel as the filter for my thinking.
#2: THE MODEL (V. 9)
The model that Paul presents to us in the text is himself when he says, “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things” (v. 9). Discipleship is all about learning, receiving, hearing, seeing and practicing.
Elsewhere, Paul tells Timothy to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1 – 3).
The Lord Jesus also calls us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19 – 20).
So, the model we have here is the model of biblical discipleship and biblical discipleship requires commands, observation, teaching, baptism (or inclusion into the church family), going and proclaiming the good news of the gospel, suffering, faithful hearing and listening, practice, visible mentoring and learning. Biblical discipleship is not just sitting in church gatherings a few times per month (though being in church gatherings is critical); biblical discipleship is more complex.
At the end of the day, the apostle Paul gives himself as the model of discipleship to the Philippians. He essentially commands them to think rightly just as they have learned and received and heard and seen in him; they are to put into practice what he has modeled for them.
Paul is essentially saying “come follow Christ as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). But we all know that commands and examples fall short unless there’s a rock-solid promise to bank on.
#3: THE PROMISE (V. 9)
After the command to “think this way” and after giving the Philippians himself as their model to follow, the apostle Paul solidifies everything with a promise when he says, “the God of peace will be with you” (v. 9).
Paul implies the same kind of promise to Timothy when he says, “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ” which is shorthand for “be strengthened by the gracious presence of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1).
Furthermore, the same kind of promise is threaded into Jesus’ words in the great commission after commanding his disciples to go and make more disciples when he says, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The promise makes the model genuine and the command achievable.
Commands and models in the Bible are always empowered by promises and not just any old promises but oftentimes it’s the promise of God’s very presence.
Notice, back in Philippians 4:9 that the promise isn’t just merely that the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” as Philippians 4:7 states, but the promise here in Philippians 4:9 is that “the God of peace will be with you”.
The very presence of God is promised to those who think on these things and follow Paul’s godly model. This means that the crucified, risen and returning Christ must be at the center of our thinking and our earthly examples.
CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION…
Put yourself back into the context of the Philippian church. Put yourself back into Syntyche and Euodia’s seats (4:2 – 7). Remember that your pastor is locked up in jail because brothers became enemies and came after him.
Remember that you’ve waited for this letter for a while. You wonder what marching orders he will give to you. Is it time to rise up against the oppression of the nation around them?
Maybe you remember the revolt of the priestly line of Maccabees a few hundred years earlier; maybe it’s time for that again.
Maybe Paul wants you to protest his imprisonment; after all it is for unjust reasons that he is locked up.
Maybe he wants the Philippian jailer (the guy working in a governmental position) to use his influence to change the prison system.
Maybe he’s going to instruct all of you to work with the wealthy Asian woman to raise funds to flood the nation with educational material about the corruption of Rome or the reform that is needed in the prison system.
You wonder if maybe, just maybe, your imprisoned pastor is going to lay out a strategy for infiltrating the local group of demonic witches that the young girl (one of the earliest members of the church) was set free from; you’ve heard that they possibly sacrifice babies to their gods and Paul would certainly want you to give your life to crushing this evil club.
But to your surprise he mentions none of this; none of the trappings or the clothing that the modern American church wears.
Instead he explains that he wants you to live your life as a citizen of heaven in a manner that is worthy of the gospel and the way you are to do this is by rejecting self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreements and division as you put on the mind of Christ and work out your salvation in Christ.
And then the big shocker! Paul calls you by name in front of the entire church family and he tells you specifically that you and the other person that you are in disagreement and division with need to get your act together and agree in the Lord as you stand firm in the joy of the Lord.
This is the context of the command to think on these things and the model to practice as you remember what you’ve learned, heard, received and seen, and the promise to stand on which is the very presence of Christ crucified, risen and returning in glory.
I think it would have been a shocking moment to say the least. If I was one of these women, my mind would have probably exploded and become momentarily (at least) unstable and divided.
The reality that my inability to agree in the Lord with my brother or sister in Christ across the room… the reality that my self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguing, my disagreements and my own divided mind had caused the house of my church family to be divided against itself… this would have been absolutely terrifying.
What is the remedy for realizing that my own sinful brokenness has contributed to this? How do I move forward now in this battlefield of the mind?
The answer is centered on Christ crucified on my behalf, risen in victory over Satan sin and death and returning in glory to take me home to heaven.
I must put on the mind of Christ. I must work out my salvation in Christ. I must stand firm in the joy of Christ. I must think on these things, practice what I have learned, heard, received and seen and stand on the promise of the indwelling presence of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
In this way, I will live my life now as a citizen of heaven in a manner that is worthy of the gospel as I take my place at the foot of a bloody cross, in the doorway of an empty tomb in light of the hope of Heaven.
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 R. Kent Hughes, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon: The Fellowship of the Gospel and the Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, ESV Edition, 2013), 178 – 179.
3 Ibid., 177.
4 Ibid., 177 – 178.