Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Philippians 4:8

Apr 15, 2013

Like some of the other passages I have discussed in this series of articles, this is not really a “difficult” passage as such. But it is a passage which is very often misused, especially by the “positive confession” folks. They use this text as a club to silence those who deal with more “negative” or unpleasant issues.

They basically say we should only be thinking happy and uplifting thoughts, and not drag ourselves down with any “negative confessions” or lingering contemplation of life’s more unpleasant and unsavoury matters. I have already dealt with this sort of thinking in a more general fashion elsewhere:

But here I wish to focus on this passage in a bit more detail. Even taking it at face value, it cannot mean what either the positive confessionists believe, or those who just don’t want to think about all the yucky things in life. The passage says this:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Consider just one thing that we are supposed to consider: that which is true.

Now here are some true things – things which we must therefore consider:

-the terrible persecution of Christians around the globe
-the rape and abuse of children
-the slaughter of millions of unborn babies each year
-the breakdown of marriages and families
-the many lives destroyed by drug and alcohol abuse
-the widespread carnality, compromise and lukewarmness in the churches
-the proliferation of cults and false religions
-the scandalous cases of apostasy, sexual sin, and abuse in the churches
-the many cases of false doctrine, false teachers, and false prophets causing all sorts of mischief

These are just a few things which happen to be true, and which we must consider. It certainly does no one any good to close our eyes and try to wish all these problems and tragedies away. That has nothing to do with Christian witness in a fallen world, and it has nothing to do with what this verse is attempting to convey.

And bear in mind that the Word of God itself is true – and it gives us the full picture of life in a fallen world with all of its sin, suffering, degradation and evil. Our calling as believers is to deal with all that and seek to be salt and light in this very needy world, and not pretend it does not exist.

So just what is Paul saying here then? First, a bit of context. In this brief letter Paul talks about joy and rejoicing more than in almost any other book in the Bible. And that is quite amazing because he wrote it while in a Roman prison. The point of the epistle is to encourage believers, and to get them to focus on Jesus, not just their circumstances.

Of course that does not mean Paul is just trying to wish away his difficulties, or do some mind-over-matter routine about his actual condition. Paul is a realist and he knows his situation is not so great. But he knows his God is great, and whatever happens, he wants to see Christ glorified.

Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal pastor and New Testament scholar, who wrote a devastating little booklet back in 1979 called The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels, writes in his commentary on this epistle:

“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 verb 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….

“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 the light of the cross.”

And this is not mere happy reflections, daydreaming, or theoretical musings. Right thoughts are meant to be coupled with right actions, as verse 9 makes clear. As Gerald Hawthorn remarks, “These verses constitute a single sentence in Greek that is marvelous for its rhetorical expression and for the loftiness of the moral standards it sets forth….

“They fairly well sum up what is involved in standing firm in the Lord: (1) ‘you must think’, and (2) ‘you must act’. . . . The Philippians must ever be critical towards heathen culture and evaluate carefully its standards of morality. But certainly he does not intend by [the use of ‘consider’] any encouragement to reflection without action.

“Rather he intends to say that the Philippian Christians must carefully consider certain things and evaluate them thoughtfully for the ultimate purpose of letting these things guide them into good deeds.”

Moreover, the list of virtues found here of course culminates fully in the person of Jesus Christ. It is him that we are to be mindful of and to continuously consider. When we do that, we can endure whatever difficult circumstances come our way, and be effective in the work of the Lord.

Thus this passage is not about any “positive confession” theology, nor is it a command to look away from the world’s troubles and problems. It is a call to have the mind of Christ and apply it to the ills of the world as we seek to represent him faithfully, and minister into the needs and difficulties of the day.

[1028 words]

10 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Philippians 4:8

  • λογιζεσθε “think on” can also have the connotation of a call to intelligent, reasoned thought – a rational discourse with one’s mind or with other minds on the subjects in question. Certainly, we are looking at something more potent than mere “warm, fuzzy” reminiscences. The insistence on a connection with the the habitual “practising” of those things in verse 9, I find a fascinating and potent example of context being vital to the correct understanding of a favourite Bible text. Thanks for the very necessary exhortation on this point. If the Way of Christ were only “all in the mind”, its practical use would be negligible.

    John Wigg

  • Yes quite right John and many thanks.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • And of course God is forced to look upon these horrors every day — he sees it all — far more than we see — and every bit of it. Surely the most remarkable verse in scripture must be, “For God so loved the world . . .” THAT is really worth thinking on.

    Elizabeth Kendal

  • Quite so Elizabeth

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks for highlighting the word TRUE. To test what is true, use The Bible. Too often I`ve heard people say they will go with what the Holy Spirit tells them to do, over what The Scripture say.

    Johannes Archer

  • Hi Bill, I wrote the following as part of an introduction to a Bible teaching manual. As you said it’s not about positive thinking but Truth in Action by allowing our lives to be transformed by God’s Grace, WORD & SPIRIT while living righteously in a fallen world.
    Jesus said “if you love me, you will obey my commandments.” John 14:5
    “As Christians we live as residents of an earthly country with earthly rulers but simultaneously we are called to live as Citizens of the heavenly kingdom with Jesus Christ as eternal king. Both locations have their own governing constitutions and in order to live successfully we need to know and study what the laws and requirements of the land are. The Bible is God’s constitution for living in his kingdom. It reveals his true kingly nature and character for all to see and importantly for us; all his laws are based on it. Therefore in order to know what Jesus would require of us we need to know what he has already said and done.

    “Heaven and earth pass will away, but my words will never pass away. Mark 13:31

    Therefore our desire to study God’s Word flows out our relationship with him. It is based upon knowing his love for us and our desire to please him in all that we do. By diligently seeking to find out what our King has already said, with the intention of obeying him, we show that we truly love him and have the Holy Spirit at work in us to transform us into the likeness of Christ.”

    Lyle Hutchinson

  • Thanks for that Lyle

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I think that another thing the verse actually is trying to say to us is to avoid thinking on our past lives before Christ. Not allowing the old man to cause us to reminisce on our old sinful ways so that we are not tempted to go back to those ways.

    God wants us to focus on the task at hand. This sometimes involves thinking about the bad things in the world, but in the light of Christ, letting God direct us in how we can improve the situation, not just ignoring it.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks for sharing this perspective on ‘truth’ – I knew there must be somewhere to indicate I’m on the right track to be making a stand against evil (without it taking me into depths of despair & depression) by being balanced with the noble, right, pure, lovely & admirable thoughts.

    Mardi Muirson

  • I am doing a dissertation on that centers on the word euphemos in Philippians 4:8. I read somewhere in a commentary or article about that word indicating in other extra-biblical Greek of the period it had a connotation of what was the good about an otherwise tragic situation. (if anyone else has read that please send me the reference – I have searched diligently for it but cannot find it again). Paul often focuses on the good in the bad, Romans 5:3 he adjures us to “exult in tribulation”; he focuses on his slanderers in Phil 1 acknowledging their selfish ambition but focusing on their preaching the gospel. He focuses on what is good about death or about living in chains instead of on what is miserable. He does not deny the terrible realities – yet he copes and learns to be content by reflecting on the good that may come out of them or done about them. I think he would challenge us to do so about each of the list of true things above as we follow his example and learn after him to be content in all circumstances and to realize with him we ‘can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens us.”

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