Paul’s letter to the Philippians radiates a sense of joy. This chapter is no exception. Already he’s exhorted the Philippians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, “Rejoice!”’(Philippians 4:4). This joyful statement leads on to a short section teaching how to know God’s peace, to which verse eight is central. God’s peace of course contributes to the Christian’s sense of joy as we serve him.
It’s notable that Paul knows and teaches peace and joy at this point in his life, since chapter one tells us he’s writing from prison. This shows his peace and joy are independent of worldly circumstance, as he confirms later in chapter four, ‘I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content in it’(Philippians 4:11). So what enables Paul to know and teach contentment, peace and joy, even bound up in prison!?
The first word of verse eight, ‘Finally’ or ‘after that’, points to his first step, found in verses five to seven. Here Paul teaches we must empty our minds of all annoyances and anxieties, drawing near to God, laying such distractions before Him in prayer. This frees up our minds for verse eight, ‘whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things.’ We’re to fill our minds with good things instead. Paul splatters our imaginations with good things like a firework display, as if to demonstrate how ‘these things’ can enthral our minds: ‘true’, ‘honorable’, ‘just’, ‘pure’, ‘lovely’, ‘good’, ‘virtue’, ‘praise’. But what exactly does Paul mean by these words, since not everyone praises or regards as good the same things?
He doesn’t mean what the world praises and regards as good, as he’s warned in chapter three, ‘many walk… as the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who think about earthly things… our citizenship is in heaven.’(Philippians 3:18-20)
He’s talking about heavenly things. A less sparkly way of putting it might be: think about the trustworthy character of God and all that’s consistent with that; think about all that conforms to the demands of His will, moreover anything that’s commendable or delightful in His sight. In particular Paul is referring to his own teaching and example in this regard, as he adds in verse nine, ‘The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me’(Philippians 4:9). That’s a lot to think about. We could spend many hours absorbed by Paul’s teaching and being inspired by what we know of his life and example.
But we don’t need to read far to realise that the ultimate focus for Paul was the perfect life, death and resurrection of his Lord, Jesus Christ. Everything else pales into insignificance compared to ‘the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse’(Philippians 3:8). In chapter two Paul presents Jesus as our ultimate example:-
‘Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him,…’
This hymn makes clear an important final step in Paul’s path to contentment, peace and joy. It’s hinted at by the word translated ‘think about’ in verse eight, which could equally be translated ‘consider’ or ‘take into account’. We’re not to just think about Christian teaching and examples, but allow them to transform our attitudes as we consider how to live. Verse nine makes this more explicit: ‘do these things’(Philippians 4:9). As James famously reminded us, ‘be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves’(James 1:22). And similarly John warned, ‘One who says, “I know him,” and doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth isn’t in him.’(1 John 2:4). Rather, as Paul teaches here, we must ‘do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.’(Philippians 4:9)