If you were under house arrest in ancient Rome as the Apostle Paul was late in his life, what would you be thinking about? How to escape? How to win an earlier hearing from the Emperor? How to get on the good side of your guards?
None of these were Paul’s first concerns. Instead, from his confinement, he was thinking about a church he had planted and loved deeply at Philippi, in Macedonia, seven hundred miles away. The letter he wrote to that church became the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament.
Always on the alert to advance the Gospel, his final point in this letter is an exhortation to young believers to nurture their thought lives to become ever more consistent with their faith in Christ.
In Philippians 4:8 his counsel about their private thoughts is captured in six important words. Here they are:
Truth. This word fits and affirms that which corresponds to reality. Two plus two equals four. (Jesus) is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6).
Nobility. Let your thoughts be elevated, worthy, honest.
Right. Stand fearlessly for what you know to be right. Be righteous in all your dealings.
Pure. Avoid moral defilement. Be inwardly pure. God is present at every moment of your life; nothing is hidden from Him.
Beautiful. The reference is to winsomeness. There is no need to be unpleasant in order to model serious faith. The Christian mind, says William Barclay, is set on the lovely things — like kindness, sympathy, forbearance.
Admirable. Be alert to what is fine in the world and be free to admire whatever is deserving. See the handiwork of God and admire the wonders of his world.
As I read this passage it appears to me that the Apostle doesn’t want to leave out any important words from his list so he adds — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…. He appears to say, If there is anything I’ve forgotten, add those words also to the list for meditation and practice.
In the above list of words, the Apostle sets a foundation for morally wholesome thoughts and healthy relationships. The words seem to share a sense of firmness.
They are strong words, binding together ideas rooted deep in reality. To adopt and practice them seriously is to develop staunch character.
Paul’s teaching is apt for our age. Our culture’s saturation with relativism makes many people think truth is flexible, according to whim, and a moveable target: my truth, your truth…
Nobility of thought and behavior has fallen too often to coarseness of expression; righteousness, or right judgment and action, is now replaced with winning by the exertion of naked power; and purity and its subset chastity are too often reduced to vulgarity.
Not so for the Apostle Paul. His conviction is that moral excellence is to flow naturally from the embrace of the gospel. He dares to invite the young believers of Philippi to follow his example in whatever they have learned, received, heard or seen in him. He exhorts them to practice the above list of virtues, at the prompting of God’s Spirit assuring them that as a result the God of peace will be with them.
Paul’s urging to “think on these things” is appropriate because the human mind is like an electronic device that is always processing its environment. It continues even when its owner is not paying attention.
That is why Paul’s advice is so important. As believers, we are to monitor and assume responsibility for what our minds take in and doing so is a Christian discipline.
Christian minds need to be re-educated away from worldly values and enticements, and often some dark and hurtful thought patterns of anger, envy, resentment, greed, lust and such.
God wants us to be selective in our thought lives, searching within our day-to-day environment for thought content that is lovely and admirable.
The payoff is a buoyant and truly Christian mind as the Apostle Paul demonstrates. He was giving his counsel from confinement in Rome. He reports he was in chains. His future was uncertain. Yet the spirit of his letter is firm and upbeat. This shines throughout the whole piece and in that letter he uses the words joy and rejoicing sixteen times.
Image info: Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627 (Public Domain)