Foundational Discipleship

Whatever is excellent: Philippians 4:8
compiled by Greg Williamson (c) 2021

Scripture

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - NASB2020

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." - NLT

"Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God's word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart]." - AMP2015

Commentary (David S. Dockery | Gordon D. Fee | Frank Thielman)

 
Joy and Peace (Philippians 4:2–9)

There was some hint of division in the church. Paul appealed to Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other and for the entire church to stand firm in the Lord. Paul offered them a prescription for receiving God's peace, to rejoice in the Lord, and to let their thoughts be filled with that which is good, lovely, and true.

- David S. Dockery, Philippians, Holman Concise Bible Commentary
 

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Philippians 4:8

That Paul is not embracing Stoicism or pagan moralism as such8 is made clear not only by his own theology everywhere but in particular by what he does with the Stoic concept of "contentment" in [Phil 4:11–13] that follow. There he uses their language and intends the same general perspective toward circumstances as the Stoics. But he breaks the back of the Stoic concept by transforming their "self-sufficiency" into "Christ-sufficiency." So here, using language the Philippians would have known from their youth, he singles out values held in common with the best of Hellenism. But as [Phil 4:9] implies, these must now be understood in light of the cruciform existence that Paul has urged throughout the letter. …

What is striking about [Phil 4:8] is its uniqueness in the Pauline corpus. Take away the "finally, brothers and sisters," and this sentence would fit more readily in Epictetus's Discourses or Seneca's Moral Essays than it would into any of the Pauline letters -- except this one. The six adjectives and two nouns that make up the sentence are as uncommon in Paul as most of them are common stock to the world of Greco-Roman moralism. However, they are also the language of Jewish wisdom; indeed, the closest parallel to this sentence in the NT is not in the Pauline letters but in Jas 3:13–18, where some of this same language occurs in speaking of "the wisdom that is from above."

But what Paul says here is much less clear than the English translations would lead one to believe. The impression given is that he is calling on them one final time to "give their minds" to nobler things. That may be true in one sense, but the language and grammar suggest something slightly different. The verb12 ordinarily means to "reckon" in the sense of "take into account," rather than simply to "think about." This suggests that Paul is telling them not so much to "think high thoughts" as to "take into account" the good they have long known from their own past, as long as it is conformable to Christ. This seems confirmed by the double proviso, "if anything," that interrupts the sentence. The six words themselves, at least the first four, already point to what is virtuous and praiseworthy; so why add the proviso unless he intends them to select out what is morally excellent and praiseworthy from these "whatever things" that belong to the world around them, and to do so on the basis of Christ himself? Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently "citizens of heaven," living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross.

Despite its several correspondences to hellenistic moralism and Jewish wisdom, however, this is Paul's own enumeration. It neither reflects the four cardinal virtues of Hellenism [= self-control; prudence; justice; and courage, which together are classified as virtues], nor is there anything else quite like it as a list in the ancient world, either in form or content. As with all such "virtue" lists in Paul, it is intended to be representative, not definitive. The six adjectives cover a broad range -- truth, honor, uprightness, purity, what is pleasing or admirable. Since they also reflect what the teachers of Wisdom considered to be the best path for the young to adopt, very likely this language in part came to Paul by way of this tradition. In any case, in Paul they must be understood in light of the cross, since that is surely the point of the final proviso in [Phil 4:9] that whatever else they do, they are to follow Paul's teaching and thus imitate his cruciform lifestyle. Thus:

(1) Whatever is true. For Paul truth is narrowly circumscribed, finding its measure in God (Rom 1:18, 25) and the gospel (Gal 2:5; 5:7). As a virtue, especially in Jewish wisdom, it has to do with true speech (Prov 22:21) over against the lie and deceit or is associated with righteousness and equity. Just as suppression of the truth about God, which leads to believing the lie about him, is the first mark of idolatry (the worship of false deities), so the first word in this virtue list calls them to give consideration to whatever conforms to the gospel.

(2) Whatever is noble. Although this word most often has a "sacred" sense ("revered" or "majestic"), here it probably denotes "honorable," "noble," or "worthy of respect." It occurs in Prov 8:6 also in conjunction with "truth" and "righteousness," as characteristic of what Wisdom has to say. Thus, whatever is "worthy of respect," wherever it may come from, is also worth giving consideration to.

(3) Whatever is right. As with "truth," what is "right" 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.

(4) Whatever is pure. This word originated in the cultus, where what had been sanctified for the temple was considered "pure"; along with the related word "holy," it soon took on moral implications. In Proverbs it stands over against "the thoughts of the wicked" (Prov 15:26) or "the way of the guilty" (Prov 21:8, in conjunction with being "upright"). Thus, "whatever things are pure" has to do with whatever is not "besmirched" or "tainted" in some way by evil. As with "truth" it occurs earlier in this letter (Phil 1:17) to contrast those whose motives are "impure" in preaching the gospel so as to "afflict" Paul.

(5) Whatever is lovely. With this word and the next we step off NT turf altogether onto the more unfamiliar ground of Hellenism -- but not hellenistic moralism. This word has to do primarily with what people consider "lovable," in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward. The NJB catches the sense well by translating, "everything that we love." 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. In common parlance, this word 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 is admirable as well as moral.

(6) Whatever is admirable. Although not quite a synonym of the preceding word, it belongs to the same general category of "virtues." Not 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 that follows, "if anything is excellent, if anything is praiseworthy." The word "excellent" is the primary Greek word for "virtue" or "moral excellence." It is generally avoided, at least in this sense, by the LXX translators. Although not found elsewhere in Paul, the present usage, along with "contentment" in [Phil 4:11], 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 (Phil 4:9). 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 [Phil 4:8] 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.

- Gordon D. Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament
 

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Philippians 4:8

Paul's list of virtues in [Phil 4:8] assumes that the world contains many good qualities that merit the believer's consideration and affirmation. It also assumes that the pagan world has some notion of good and bad, right and wrong, duty and irresponsibility, beauty and ugliness, honor and shame. Elsewhere Paul speaks of Gentiles who have the requirements of God's law written on their hearts and says that occasionally they actually do these things (Rom. 2:14-15). He can also speak of the pagan authorities in government as God's agents for adjudicating right and wrong in society at large (Rom 13:1-7). Paul assumes, in other words, that absolute moral standards exist, that people other than Jews and Christians have affirmed them, and that the believer can benefit from pondering examples of them wherever they occur, even in the pagan world.

Within the present climate of moral relativity, the modern church would do well to reaffirm this theological principle. Christian standards of morality and beauty are not simply expressions of subjective feelings but truths graciously revealed from God for the welfare of his people and of all creation. People other than Christians frequently recognize their validity, and when they do, Christians should support them, learn from them, and take comfort that what they acknowledge to be right on the basis of God's Word the rest of the world often acknowledges to be right on the basis of their own understanding of how the world and society function best.

Christians would be remiss, however, if they allowed the unbelieving world to guide their ethical decisions. Elsewhere Paul acknowledges that because of the insidious effects of sin, unbelievers are often misguided about right and wrong -- indeed, so misguided that they sometimes worship the creature rather than the Creator and seek human intimacy in precisely the wrong places (Rom. 1:21-27). Moreover, even when they retain a clear understanding of right and wrong, they are often incapable of doing it (Rom. 1:28-32; cf. Phil. 2:15). Thus, in [Phil 4:9] Paul reminds the Philippians of the importance of the specifically Christian witness to correct moral conduct. It is not simply contained in the Old Testament, although as Paul's rather subtle use of Israel as a negative example in [Phil 2:14-16] shows, the Philippians must have been familiar with the Old Testament and, if the moral content of Paul's other letters provides any insight into how he taught the Philippians, he must have reaffirmed much of the morality contained in it. Nevertheless, Paul's own example and teaching, shaped by his knowledge of Christ (1 Cor. 4:17; 11:1), provided the Philippians with a sure moral compass within a "crooked and depraved generation" (Phil. 2:15).

The modern church, likewise, should applaud and learn from unbelieving expressions of truth and beauty. Mature Christians should feel no compulsion to read only literature written by other Christians, to view only movies and plays that fellow believers have produced, or to listen only to Christian music. Paul urges believers to discover and learn from the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy wherever it occurs. Not only will believers who do this shape their lives into the form that God desires, but they will uphold the truth within a relativistic age that claims truth cannot be known. Christians should nevertheless not [forget] that the touchstone of what is true and good is the Word of God and that every moral expression within the wider unbelieving world should be measured against the standard of the gospel as preserved in Scripture.

Our task of bridging the ancient and the modern contexts is not complete, however, after simply identifying the general theological principles underlying this passage. Although the application of these general principles to the modern context is certainly legitimate, the passage is most clearly applicable to situations in the modern church that parallel the ancient Philippian situation of persecution. The temptation is as strong in modern contexts of persecution as it was in ancient times to lash out in retaliation at those who injure us and to wring our hands in anxiety about what will become of us, our families, and our property. The temptation is also strong to develop a dualistic view of the world -- to think that everything outside the persecuted church is evil, including fellow Christians who for some reason are not experiencing persecution. If this is our context, Philippians 4:2-9 urges us to be gentle rather than vindictive, prayerful rather than anxious, and appreciative of the good within our culture rather than intellectually cloistered behind the fortified walls of a narrow ideology.

… Paul asserts the need for believers to cast their intellectual nets widely -- to allow all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, wherever it is found, to shape their thinking. He then urges them to practice what they have learned from him of the Christian tradition [(Phil 4:9)]. Christians today should not retreat from face-to-face encounters with the best unbelieving minds of the age, but should read them and hear them in the hope of learning truth, justice, and excellence from them and thereby becoming more obedient followers of Christ. At the same time, Christians should strive for minds so steeped in the Scriptures and Christian tradition that they are able to approach the values of the unbelieving world with a critical eye, an eye able to discern between what appears to be true but is, in subtle ways, false.

Christians have often in the course of their history had to endure social ostracism and outright persecution. But the proper response to these tragedies is not a retreat from the unbelieving world or a strictly reactionary response to it. It is instead a proactive attempt to embrace truth wherever it is found within the world and to integrate it with the truth found in Scripture.

All of this is so important because the way we think determines how we act. Paul belies any attempt to separate thought from deed in [Phil 4:8-9] when he uses the term "think" in [Phil 4:8] and the expression "put into practice" in [Phil 4:9].  Since the Philippians must think about his teaching and example in order to put them into practice, and since Paul will not believe that the Philippians have obeyed his command to think about the virtues he lists if they have not also acted on them, the two words have much the same meaning. Our thinking and our actions, then, are closely bound together. Indulging evil thoughts and tolerating sloppy thinking can have terrible consequences. Thus, if instead of loving my enemy I indulge the temptation to resent him, resentment turns to anger, anger to hatred, and the link between hatred and murder, as Jesus saw, is close (Matt. 5:21-22).

- Frank Thielman, Philippians, The NIV Application Commentary
 

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