Philippians 4:8

Sermon preached on July 18, 2010 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

One day when I was attending seminary in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of my professors was giving us hints on how to cope or survive in the ministry. He said that some places in Scotland were so unique that a minister needed some special coping techniques to succeed there. I believe there were three things that he meant by unique. The first problem he spoke about had to do with geography. He said that some places were so remote and isolated that you wouldn't be able to get away from it for long periods of time. Related to this was the fact that not only were certain places isolated, but they were bleak and depressing. I'm not sure what he meant by 'bleak', because I found Scotland exceedingly beautiful. I suspect that part of the bleakness had to do with the bad weather that parts of Scotland get. Certain areas can be overcast and foggy a lot of the time. In addition to that, he said that it could be hard ministering in an isolated spot because sometimes the people in isolated communities keep to themselves and perhaps it would be hard to make close friends. What I found surprising about his suggestions was that he mentioned coping strategies in addition to the normal spiritual things I was expecting. Of course he mentioned daily Bible reading, prayer etc. He said that if we ever went to a place like that that we should get to know the music of Beethoven. He said that music could be a wonderful help to a minister in such a situation. It was one of the things that he urged us to cultivate. He gave us more suggestions than that, but the Beethoven one was the one that stuck with me.

Thinking back to that advice I would say that that professor knew the truth of our text. The apostle Paul wrote, (Philippians 4:8)

"Finally, brothers, 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."

What's interesting about this verse is the fact that Paul uses very unusual words. He basically uses the words that a Greek philosopher would use. Five of the words that he used were not at all common in the New Testament. They're not part of the New Testament vocabulary, except here. As Gordon Fee says of Paul's vocabulary and message here, it is, (Philippians, p. 415)

"expressed in the language of Hellenistic moralism, in effect it tells them to take into account the best of their Greco-Roman heritage, as long as it has moral excellence and is praiseworthy."

What? The best of their Greco-Roman heritage? But Fee goes on to tell us that Paul is not embracing Stoicism or pagan moralism. What then is Paul doing?

The context here helps us. Philippians is all about Christ. In chapter 3 Paul tells us that he considers everything a loss compared with the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus. He considered his own works as rubbish compared to the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ. He wanted the Philippians to realize what they had in Jesus and to rejoice in Him and His salvation. As he wrote in 4:4,

"Rejoice in the Lord always.
I will say it again: Rejoice!"

He wanted them to shine like stars in the universe as they held out the Word of Life. (2:15-16) He wanted them to make progress in taking hold of Christ and to press on, to win the prize for which Jesus had called him heavenward. (3:14) In chapter 1 Paul summarized one of His great aims for the Philippian Christians. He wrote, (Philippians 1:9–11)

"And this is my prayer:
that your love may abound more and more
in knowledge and depth of insight,
so that you may be able to discern
what is best and may be pure
and blameless until the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ—
to the glory and praise of God."

In order to help them do that, Paul told them many wonderful things about Jesus, about the humility He displayed in dying for them (2:8) about how we are now citizens of heaven (3:20) and how one day Jesus will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body. (3:21)

Just as we do, the Philippians had an awesome responsibility to live in joy, showing the world what Jesus was like.

But it's hard to do that. This world is difficult. Growing in holiness is difficult. Pride and self-seeking has to be put to death. That's exceedingly hard. Not only that, but dealing with people who are not Christians is difficult. They had put Paul in jail. Paul was writing this letter from a prison cell. Persecution can be very difficult to deal with. It's natural tendency is to get Christians to lose their joy. But not only is it difficult to deal with non-Christians, sometimes it can be difficult to be around certain other Christians. In verse 2 of chapter 4 Paul urges two Christian sisters, Euodia and Syntyche to put their arguing behind them. Not only that, but this life can be filled with tragedy, disappointment and suffering. There are many things that go wrong and trouble us and cause us to worry. All in all, there are many things in this world that can prevent us from living correctly, having joy and shining for Jesus.

In order to overcome those obstacles we need to use the means of grace. We need God's Word. That's why Paul was writing this letter to the Philippians. We need to be praying. As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:6–7,

"Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything,
by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving,
present your requests to God.
And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus."

We need Christian fellowship. One of the reoccurring themes in Philippians is partnership in the gospel—how we all share God's grace together and how we are to help, encourage and lift one another up. We need to use the means of grace in order to fulfill our duty.

But the great point that Paul makes in our text is that there are other things that can help us fulfill our duty in Christ and glorify Him. God has given great gifts, not just to the church, but to the world—and these gifts can help Christians. They can help them rejoice in Christ. They can help them praise Him and lift His name high. They can help us overcome difficulties and trying circumstances. They can help us appreciate God's goodness and His glory and thus lift our hearts to Him. Paul speaks of those things in our text. He wrote,

"Finally, brothers, 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."

What Paul implies in our text is that

there is an element of Christ, His power, His majesty, His beauty—in this world, in His creation. We should not shun that, but use it to help us to praise Him, live for him and rejoice in Him.

Jesus is the Creator of all things. The things that He created show His power, His wisdom, His glory. The fall into sin has marred and defaced the creation of God and it is now tainted by sin and corruption. Nevertheless, God's glory still shines forth in many of the things that He has created. We see one example of this in Psalm 19:1–4 which says,

"The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world."

The heavens show God's great power and majesty. God's glory shines forth in astronomy. The beauty of distant galaxies shows you the artistic creativity of God. The vastness of the distances involved tells you about God's great power, about His immensity.

There are other things in God's creation that are full of beauty, fascination and mystery. Think of music, which my seminary professor mentioned. I have told you before how I often listen to classical music while I'm preparing my sermons. When I listen to Bach's Cantatas I'm absolutely amazed at how beautiful and intricate they are. I'm absolutely amazed that God has given me that privilege and honor to hear such music. What a gift music is.

Or think about mathematics. Mathematics is such a gift from God. Math is so useful, so wonder, so complex, so mysterious. Simon Singh's book,
Fermat's Enigma contains a story that shows how fascinating mathematics can be. In his book, Singh tells the story of the quest to prove or disprove Fermat's last theorem. Pierre Fermat lived in the early 1600's and posed a problem in one of his papers. In the margin next to the problem, he wrote,

"I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain."

Those are probably the most frustrating words ever written in the margin of a notebook. For centuries mathematicians tried to either prove or disprove his theorem. They would have loved to have had that marvelous little proof. It wasn't until the 1990's that it was finally proved. The history of the quest is absolutely fascinating. One of the footnotes in that quest concerns Paul Wolfskehl, a German industrialist, who tinkered in mathematics. Singh writes, (p. 122)

"The story begins with Wolfskehl's obsession with a beautiful woman, whose identity has never been established. Depressingly for Wolfskehl the mysterious woman rejected him and he was left in such a state of utter despair that he decided to commit suicide. He was a passionate man, but not impetuous, and he planned his death with meticulous detail. He set a date for his suicide and would shoot himself through the head at the stroke of midnight. In the days that remained he settled all his outstanding business affairs, and on the final day he wrote his will and composed letters to all his close friends and family. Wolfskehl had been so efficient that everything was completed slightly ahead of his midnight deadline, so to while away the hours he went to the library and began browsing through the mathematical publications. It was not long before he found himself staring at Kummer's classic paper explaining the failure of Cauchy and Lame. It was one of the great calculations of the age and suitable reading for the final moments of a suicidal mathematician. Wolfskehl worked through the calculation line by line. Suddenly he was startled at what appeared to be a gap in the logic—Kummer had made an assumption and failed to justify a step in his argument. Wolfskehl wondered whether he had uncovered a serious flaw or whether Kummer's assumption was justified. If the former was true, then there was a chance that proving Fermat's Last Theorem might be a good deal easier than many had presumed. He sat down, explored the inadequate segment of the proof, and became engrossed in developing a mini-proof that would either consolidate Kummer's work or prove that his assumption was wrong, in which case all Kummer's work would be invalidated. By dawn his work was complete… The good news was that the appointed time of the suicide had passed, and Wolfskehl was so proud that he had discovered and corrected a gap in the work of the great Ernst Krummer that his despair and sorrow evaporated. Mathematics had renewed his desire for life."

But besides being fascinating and intriguing like that—mathematics also has a beauty about it. Here's what a Wikipedia article says about it.

"Many mathematicians derive aesthetic pleasure from their work, and from mathematics in general. They express this pleasure by describing mathematics (or, at least, some aspect of mathematics) as beautiful. Sometimes mathematicians describe mathematics as an art form or, at a minimum, as a creative activity. Comparisons are often made with music and poetry. Bertrand Russell expressed his sense of mathematical beauty in these words:'Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.[1]'Paul ErdÓ§s expressed his views on the ineffability of mathematics when he said, "Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is."

Even though the world has been marred by the fall into sin—there are things of exceeding beauty and majesty here. Because of the redeeming work of Jesus we can use them properly and rejoice in them. Vern S. Poythress writes, (Redeeming Science, p. 337)

"mathematics offers a wonderful display of God's wisdom for those who are awake to its beauties and to God who ordained those beauties."

We can rejoice in such beauties and praise God for them. As David tells us in Psalm 24:1,

"The earth is the LORD'S,
and everything in it,"

As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23,

"All things are yours,
whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
or the world or life or death
or the present or the future—all are yours,
and you are of Christ,
and Christ is of God."

Gordon Fee says that in our text Paul is encouraging the Philippian Christians, (Philippians, p. 416)

"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."

This reminds me of Eric Liddell, the Olympian champion made famous in the movie, Chariots of Fire. He was a Scottish Christian and after his running career was over he was a missionary to China. In the movie he is quoted as saying,

"God made me for a purpose and He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."

The second thing we see from our text is that

you are to take these things of beauty, of nobility into account.

You as a Christian are to use these things to help you live for God's glory. They have been redeemed by Jesus.

The NIV says that you are to 'think about' these things. But there's a little more to it than that. Gordon D. Fee writes, (p. 415)

"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 'given 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."

You are not just to think about these excellent things, you are to live in light of them. You are to use them in your Christian walk. You are to let them inspire, delight, and thrill you. You are to rejoice in them, use them for your benefit and praise God for them.

But someone might object.

What about the verses that say we are not to love the world or anything in the world?

For example, in 1 John 2:15–17 we read,

"Do not love the world
or anything in the world.
If anyone loves the world,
the love of the Father is not in him.
For everything in the world—
the cravings of sinful man,
the lust of his eyes and the boasting
of what he has and does—
comes not from the Father
but from the world.
The world and its desires pass away,
but the man who does
the will of God lives forever."

You'll remember that Paul also said that Demas deserted him because, (2 Timothy 4:10)

'he loved this world.'

What we need to remember is that in cases like that the word, 'world' is used in a very negative sense. When Paul says that Demas loved 'this world', he is referring to the empty and sinful, things of this world. He went after them instead of after Christ. They took him away from Jesus.

But he things that Paul mentions here in Philippians 4:8 are not sinful, empty, vain things. They are gifts from God for the benefit of His people. They can help us in so many ways. They can help us psychologically. It's noteworthy that Paul mentions these things and tells us to take them into account right after he mentions worry and tells us not to worry about anything. The main relief for worry is certainly prayer and the reading of God's promises. But God has given us more than that and if we are wise we will use every one of those gifts. When we do we will truly be well rounded Christians, able to praise God for His great goodness to us.

I recently read about an extreme fringe of another religion that rejected all music as Satanic. By doing so they are closing their eyes to one of God's great gifts to mankind. They are doing what God told Peter not to do in Acts 10:15,

"Do not call anything impure
that God has made clean."

It's certainly true that not all music has been cleansed. There is some music that is tainted and polluted by sin. But music itself is not sinful. It's a great gift from God and is to be used properly.

In his book, Redeeming Science, Vern S. Poythress (p. 339) says of science, (although it could be applied to the arts and other endeavors as well)

"Science is intended to be a task pursued and carried out in a spirit of praise. In science, we think God's thoughts after him, and praise rises in our hearts as we see more of his wisdom."

We as Christians should not ignore and disparage science and the arts. Rather we should rejoice and praise God in and for them.

For those of you who aren't Christians, what this means for you is that

you're not giving glory to God for all these wonderful gifts that He has given to you.

You look at astronomy, mathematics, nature, the arts and you don't acknowledge that God has given us these gifts and you don't praise Him for them like you should. You're failing to glorify God. That's a terrible sin.

You need to go to Jesus and through Him praise, honor and glorify God as you should. Not to do so is to squander and waste your life.