Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"Meditate on These Things"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

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.

(Philippians 4.8)

As Paul sat imprisoned, writing the letter to the Christians of Philippi, he was sure he would soon be acquitted, released, and given the opportunity to travel to Philippi again and see his dear friends in person.  Pretty sure.  Like, a solid 75% sure.  Nevertheless, he wrote as if it would be his last communication with these brothers and sisters, making sure to leave nothing unsaid that he’d regret, if his expectations were thwarted.  He wrapped up this task with a list of the things that ought to occupy the Christian’s mind.

Sometimes the exegesis of this passage, and others like it, begins and ends with John 17.17, in which Jesus says to his Father, “your word is truth.”  Thus, the meaning is taken to be, meditate on God’s word.  That’s certainly a good practice and is included in the point Paul is making, but it’s bigger than that.  Seek a true understanding of all things, both what you read in the Bible and what you see in the world.  Satan is the “father of lies” (Jn 8.44), but the children of God should oppose every lie, whether about the Scriptures or about the nature of the world and the events that take place therein.

This is another basic concept that seems as if it should require little explanation.  Yet upon reflection we will discover that it’s hard to define what is honorable in specific terms.  We could offer examples of honorable and dishonorable conduct, and make further judgments on a case-by-case basis; but at its root, the notion is one of outshining others in a field.  In older literature, the Greek word behind honorable, σεμνά-semna, was even used in a negative sense, to mean “haughty” or “pompous;” but in the New Testament it instead always carries the connotation of deserving respect, not merely demanding it.

How much more basic can we get?  Justice is when each person gets what he deserves, in the way it ought to be given; but what Paul means is broader.  Our English word, just, comes from the Latin iustus, which in turn is built on the more fundamental ius, meaning “law”—not a law, but the general concept and body of law.  Likewise, the Greek word in Philippians 4.8, δίκαια, is about an entire manner of life consistent with moral law.

We think of purity as meaning the absence of unwanted substances, and this  applies in moral terms, too.  The word translated pure in our text, ἁγνά-hagna, signifies innocence as we would expect—but in a decidedly divine sense!  It’s a moral and religious purity, not just homogeneity of any old sort.

This word is usually associated with visible beauty.  Is that where Paul is telling Christians to put their focus?  Well, no; but it is included under the broader umbrella of loveliness!  This has been hijacked and abused in our culture more than in most, but at its root physical beauty is found in embodying the ideals of God’s creation.  What is lovely gives us innocent delight.  We must be careful to avoid taking this to an extreme, because an improper focus on pleasure is called sensuality, and is numbered among the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5.19-21, which keep a person from the kingdom of God.  But rather than putting our focus on what delights our eyes and flesh, we should contemplate the things that delight God, and seek to share that delight.

To commend is to publicly voice approval to a person, practice, thing, or idea.  In its most literal sense, the Greek word, εὔφημα-euphēma, signifies speaking well of someone or something.  Is Paul telling us to put stock in man’s approval, now?  Yes, up to a point.  Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we should seek to please man instead of God—as he himself wrote, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Ga 1.10)!  At the same time, while man is fickle and his tastes changing, mankind still possesses an incredibly consistent common sense regarding basic morality.  Paul instructed elsewhere that we should “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Ro 12.17).  Meditate on such things as ought to meet with man’s approval.

The Greek word behind this, ἀρετή-aretē,  means virtue; but that’s not quite a sufficient definition.  It does signify living by rules and ideals, but to an extent not often seen!  “Excellence” means more than just goodness, but rather superior, distinct, or eminent goodness.  It’s less about measuring up to a standard, and more about surpassing one’s peers in moral uprightness—not for the sake of competition, but out of a sense of duty.

Doesn’t “worthy of praise” mean the same thing as “commendable,” earlier in the verse?  Very nearly so.  But it’s hardly likely that Paul would finish out this list with a redundancy, so we ought to consider further.  Before, the focus was on things that are well spoken of, among men.  “Praise,” while it certainly could apply to the same social context, also opens the door to a higher realm—as Paul wrote about the devoted Jew circumcised in heart and not merely body, “His praise is not from man but from God” (Ro 2.29).  Live in such a way as to receive his praise, regardless of who else hears it.

Jeremy Nettles