“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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.” (Philippians 4:8)
Many are the verses often ripped out of context to press particular points in the church. Matthew 18:20 is one such favourite (see here), Matthew 7:1 is another and John 16:23b is often handled this way too. Ignoring the context of these verses will inevitably lead us to false application (sometimes dangerously, sometimes less so). As Don Carson has often stated, attributing the quote to his father, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text”. The above verse, Philippians 4:8, is another such example.
This verse is rarely used in its contextless form as an encouragement to other believers. Rather, it is typically wheeled out when one party wishes to stop another from acting a particular way. Such is a shame given a plain reading of the verse, even while ignoring the wider context, suggests it was intended as an encouragement to the believers in Philippi, not a warning to stop doing something in particular.
Those who employ a contextless reading tell us to think about those things that are true, honrouable, pure, excellent, etc. That is a plain reading of the text. Therefore, they aver, it follows we are to avoid thinking about those things that are not lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. As such, they go on, anything we can deem unlovely, not commendable or less than excellent must be shunned by the believer. It is here we run into some trouble.
On such a reading, the range of things condemned as unedifying is enormous. The usual suspects in view are such “worldly” pursuits as TV, music, film and then a whole host of other things dependent on the particular hobby horses of the individual. However, what they singularly fail to take into account on their reading is the logical conclusion of this position.
If we can only focus on what is true, any form of fiction must be discarded because it is not (and that would presumably include such classics as Pilgrim’s Progress.) Pursuing regular news coverage must be ruled out. Rarely is the news commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. In fact, any thought of considering the state of the world around us must be removed from our thoughts because, though it may be true, it is not pure, excellent or always worthy of praise.
But the view must be pressed further. Evangelism suddenly becomes impossible because, as often happens when one engages with the world, conversations may be less than excellent and praise worthy. We may have to listen to views, and language, that do not equate with Paul’s exhortation. Paul himself was wrong to do evangelism because he was regularly flogged, beaten, stoned or imprisoned – hardly lovely and commendable.
Then we are faced with portions of scripture itself. What precisely is lovely, pure and worthy of praise in certain descriptive parts of Old Testament narrative? Consider (or don’t, if you take this reading) passages such as Genesis 4, Judges 19:22-29 or 2 Samuel 13. Of course, in their appropriate context and with proper thought, there are valuable principles to be drawn and understood. But the events themselves, that we must consider if we are to understand what God would have us learn through such passages, cannot be meditated upon if we follow this contextless reading to its logical conclusion.
This approach to Philippians 4:8 is a charter for ignorance and lack of thought. We can only really consider the lighter, fluffier parts of the Bible because they are pure, excellent, true, etc. We cannot consider, with meaningful thought, anything that is not wholly true, honourable, just, pure, excellent, etc. Engagement of any sort with the world, and worldviews apart from the Bible, are out. Even portions of scripture describing unsavoury events must also be ignored if we are not to fall foul of considering things that are fundamentally unlovely. The Bible simply does not call believers to a state of credulousness and ignorance this way.
Instead of this approach, putting the verses in context can help us out. The preceding verses, Philippians 4:4-7, are dealing with our potential for anxiety. Paul is telling us to be anxious in nothing and to bring our prayers and petitions to God with confidence. The following verses, vv-8-9, are offering a solution to our anxieties. Moreover, the only thing to truly meet all the criteria outlined by Paul in v8 is Jesus Christ himself. Thus the solution to our anxieties as Christians is to focus upon the Lord Jesus (who himself will guard our hearts) and will allow us to thus bring our prayers with confidence to the Father.
Paul’s point is that Christ should be our ultimate focus. As per v4, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Thus his exhortation in v8 is to make the Lord Jesus our central focus. Where we do this, our anxieties will be cast aside and we will bring our prayers and petitions to the Father with confidence. As Sinclair Ferguson points out, in the space of 3 verses, Paul calls us to constantly rejoice in Christ and reject anxiety. He comments “the two are related; the joyful person is not likely to be dominated by anxiety; the anxiety-ridden spirit cannot be a joyful one”.
Paul is not calling us to credulousness, nor ignorance, nor circling off certain activities as unlovely, lacking excellence and unworthy of praise (though such things undoubtedly do exist.) His point is that Christ should be our focus. Where he is, our anxieties certainly will not prevail. Where he is the centre of our thoughts, film, music, tv and all other manner of possible activities can be assessed rightly and hold nothing for us to fear. Such a position does not lead us to cut ourselves off from the world, or meaningful engagement with it, but rather causes us to make proper and valid assessments of the things we see around us in light of Jesus; the object of our faith, the pivot around which we assess all else and the definition of the qualities of Philippians 4:8.
Paul makes this same point in v9. He tells us to shape our thoughts and minds around the apostles teaching and to practise such things. And the focus of the apostles teaching was the person and work of Jesus Christ. If our thoughts and actions are focused upon him, our minds will be focused on the things of v8. When our minds and thoughts and actions are focused this way, we may assess all else – not in a spirit of credulity or ignorance – but in the Spirit of Christ himself, which he gives to all true believers.