Philippians 4:8 reads: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
People love to quote this verse of the Bible. I see it all the time on Facebook profiles, but to be fair, it’s a great verse.
The plain sense of this verse in isolation tells us quite simply that we should think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise. Seems simple enough. Don’t turn your mind to evil things – think only of what is right and good. A pure mind leads to a pure heart and a pure body. It’s a simple exhortation about walking the right path and being good people. That’s a wonderful message to send others.
But, as I’ve been known to say, there’s a lot more to any biblical verse than the line itself – there are all of the lines around it, which we call context. Let’s just read the very next line, which says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Now, when we put these two lines together, we’re getting a little bit closer to what Paul meant.
The context for this letter is that Paul, the architect of Christianity, is in jail (we’re unsure where), and the people of Philippi have written sending him a gift and their best wishes. Paul is writing back, and though his letter is generally lighter and spirited, he has a concern: other people preaching the gospel different from his message.
Reading the letter to the Philippians in full – the context, obviously, of verse 4:8 – we learn that these other people have a different concept of righteousness than Paul, one based on law and not, as Paul would have it, on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (what Jesus himself wanted we won’t get into now). This conflict between the early followers of Jesus was quite a serious one and wasn’t over until after Paul’s death. What we see, though, is that there is a competition between Jesus’ followers to convert people to their version of belief in him. Paul wants to ensure that the people he converted to Christianity maintain his brand of Christianity. When Paul says in 4:8 to act and think on these things, he knows what true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise things are: the things he’s taught the Philippians.
A Dual Lesson
So what can we take away from this? In the first place, we learn about the importance of reading in context if we want to understand what a line of the Bible means the way it was originally written. People love this line – as they should – but I imagine that it’s rarely thought about just as Paul thought about it. Though Paul’s theology was still developing at this point, he meant something very specific when he exhorted people to meditate on what was just and good, etc. – he meant, among other things, Pauline Christology.
As luck would have it, no one in the world (or at least no founded church that I’m aware of) follows Pauline Christology exactly. Yes, Christianity today is descended from Pauline Christological conceptions and Paul definitely won his battle with the early Judeo-Christians who favored the law, but there has been significant development since then in Christological thought. If we read all of Paul’s letters start to finish and create a theology precisely on what he said, this becomes rather apparent.
In part, the result of this has been the cherry-picking of certain lines from the Pauline letters, particularly Philippians 4:8, a favorite amongst many. On the one hand, this process ignores what I see as a fascinating history that for me, deeply enriches the original text and this line, but on the other hand, doing this allows Christians – and non-Christians, for that matter – to take the very best gems of Paul’s thought and carry them around in their pockets for use when necessary.
If people walk around telling themselves to think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise – and they don’t have a warped conception of what these terms refer to but just use it as a reminder when they are thinking about doing something they really shouldn’t – then I couldn’t be happier that the Bible is influencing them in positive ways.
What do you think of this verse? What do you think about the context of the verse? Have you been told that the verse means something else? Was this something else explained to you with the verse’s surrounding context or as an individual line? Will you share that with us? If your denomination understands this verse a certain way will you please tell us about that? I would be delighted to learn more.
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