A member of our church family said to me recently, “please pray for my thought life – there are lots of things coming into my mind from different directions, some of them are wrong. And I need prayer” and I’m thankful to God that they realised that. But it got me thinking, because, for me, and I guess for many of us, we probably don’t spend enough time thinking about what we think. And that’s a dangerous thing for Christians.
It would certainly have been dangerous for the church in Philippi, which faced the external pressures of persecution and false teaching, and the internal pressures of disagreement and disunity. That’s why Paul encourages the Philippians at the beginning of chapter 4 to stand firm in the gospel (Philippians 4.1). And it’s why in our two verses this evening he’s saying, “get your thinking right – think about what’s morally excellent, and follow the example of Christians who have got their thinking right”. (Philippians 4.8-9).
As Christians today, we’re being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be more like God. That’s his plan for us – and, to use the language of Philippians, we need to press on with that. But we face some of the same pressures the Philippians had to deal with. So, it’s dangerous if we’re not switched on about what we’re thinking. Because division among us often starts with ill-disciplined thought about each other, doesn’t it? We fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, we think the worst of each other, we focus only on faults (in each other, or in church in general). And then there’s disunity and division. And discouragement in sharing the gospel is often made worse by ill-disciplined thought because we think opposition is a bad sign, or a sign that nothing is happening, or that the gospel isn’t working. So, we need to get our thinking right, and we need God’s help. Let’s ask him for that now:
Father, we long to think about what is excellent, we long to both be good examples, and to follow good examples. And so, we ask, as we come to your word, that you would help us listen and begin to make progress. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
So, here’s our first point:
1. Get your thinking right – think about what is morally excellent (Philippians 4.8):
Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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.
So, Philippians 4.8 is a positive encouragement for us to press on in living a holy life, by getting what’s excellent – what’s like God – into our heads. And that word whatever, repeated six times, means that it’s not meant to an abstract list. We’re actually to dwell on these things when we encounter them. These are the things that will push us on in godliness. And, these are true things that will help us see situations as they really are. E.g. Thinking, “I was wrong to be angry at that person. With God’s help, and the assurance that he has forgiven me, I can begin to forgive them and move forward”. Or, “That thing I heard (or said) was actually untrue and unhelpful and I can see that now”. Or, “Sharing the gospel with my colleagues has been tough. But God controls results, and works for his purposes, and our, ultimate, good. And I can see the encouragement of other Christians keeping going in sharing the gospel. So, I will too”.
So, wherever we see what is true, honourable, and so on, we’re to let it take residence in our minds. It’s hard to read Philippians 4.8 without thinking about people. So, I think, one of the main things Paul has in mind here is dwelling on how these things are ‘lived out’ in others, because in this letter, Paul is quick to rejoice in what’s good, and Godly, in the Philippians and, in Philippians 2, his fellow workers Timothy and Epaphroditus (which is a great name, isn’t it!?) So, just pause with me and think about Philippians 4.8:
Whatever is true…honourable…just…pure…lovely…commendable… [excellent and] worthy of praise.
How have you seen some of these attributes in the lives of other Christians? For me, I think of those of you who have taken me into your home, or shown me extra love and care when I’ve needed it. I think of how I’ve seen some of you have care for others in church or care for elderly family members, or how you’ve responded to situations. And it’s all been just like this list in Philippians 4.8. I think of some of our mission partners abroad. Like Andy and Rose Roberts in Brazil (who I visited several years ago now) who have grown a ministry of caring for vulnerable young girls and teaching them the good news of the Lord Jesus. I could go on, and list big things and little things – there’s so many little glimmers of these things among us. But, to be honest, I also think about how I need to be so much better at this - dwelling on what’s good in the lives of other Christians.
It’s a challenge, I’m sure for most of us, to stop and look around and see what God is doing in the lives of other brothers and sisters – and to be thankful, to rejoice, and let those good things soak into our minds and hearts, and to seek to live in the same way ourselves. And we see these qualities in people not just in the flesh, but on paper too. We read the Bible and we see these things in people – from the Old Testament, right through to Paul and what shaped his priorities.And we see these qualities, perfectly, and in abundance, in the Lord Jesus. Who optimises all of Philippians 4.8 ‘fleshed out’, and ‘lived out’.
So, one challenge, and encouragement, of these verses is to get the examples of scripture, and ultimately the example of Jesus himself, into our minds. Because it will help us stand firm against potential disunity and against opposition from outside the church. Psalm 119.11 says:
I have stored up your word in my heart, [i.e. mind] that I might not sin against you.
Or, as our Old Testament reading put it, we want who God is to be written on the tablet of our hearts (Proverbs 3.3) – i.e. etched into the control centre of our lives, so it’s there, ready to influence how we live, when we need it to. So, this is an encouragement to get into the Bible. Let’s read, re-read, discuss, come back to, go over the word of God. Listen to sermons. Watch one extra video on Clayton TV each week. Read a good Christian book. A few of you have challenged me by meeting up once a week, very briefly, to help each other memorise verses of the Bible together. Let’s get into the word of God. So that’s what’s excellent is in our minds. So it impacts what we think. And helps us get our thinking right.
But you might be listening to all of this and thinking, “That’s all very well. But we live in a world with a lot of the exact opposites of Philippians 4.8.” Lies, things that are dishonourable, that are unjust, that are impure, that are morally ugly, that are unworthy, that are shoddy, that are shameful. And it’s these opposites that are coming ‘at us’ from all sorts of different directions. And Paul knew these things can get into our heads and they can change how we think. The danger is, as the computer programming saying goes, “if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out”. If our thoughts are rotten, we’re far more likely to do rotten things. We’re far more likely to fall into the traps of division and discouragement. So, we need to identify what’s coming into our heads. If your mind is a sponge, what is it absorbing each day? I wrote a list for me: conversations – in person or online, books, news websites, sports news, radio, TV. But there are also the incidentals like the magazine rack by the checkouts, and although not everyone uses it, a big one for lots of us is social media. There’s lots of good there, but there’s lots of junk food for our minds. And there’s worse: inaccurate representations of life, or appearance, highly sexualised content, insult, slur, and so on. There are so many things coming at us which represent the exact opposites of Philippians 4.8.
So, in chemistry at school, when you wanted to make a chemical pure you got out the good old filter funnel and filtered out all the sludge, and the worthless impurities. So, we need to filter out what’s bad. And, we need to stop what we can coming into our minds in the first place. That could be coming off social media or spending much less time on it. Or stopping a programme when something unhelpful needs discussed, or thought about, rather than just absorbed. One of you, told me about the shameful conversations you regularly overhear in the workplace. That person has tried their best to do more work in another part of the building, away from those conversations. The test in all of this is God’s ways, and his priorities. What do you absorb that pulls you away from God and what he says is right and good? What occupies your mind in ungodly ways? And then, what can you do to rid your mind of these things?
But, as important as all of that is, we need to know that deep down, our minds have gone wrong irrespective of any influence the world has, or hasn’t, had on us. Someone upsets us, and those thoughts of anger and resentment build up, and up, and up. The problem there is us. It’s our thoughts, our minds. It’s not the other person, and it’s not the world around us. So, we need to ask God to help us when it comes to what we think. We need to filter what comes in, and, above all, says Paul we need to get the things of Philippians 4.8 into our heads, to replace what’s bad with what’s excellent so that we can stand firm against disunity and opposition, and keep going as Christians. So, get your thinking right – think about what’s morally excellent.
2. Follow the example of Christians who have got their thinking right (Philippians 4.9):
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
So, the Philippians had spent time with Paul. They’d received the gospel from him. They’d learned from him. So, e.g. later on in this chapter Paul says he’d learned the secret of how to be content in every circumstance. And the Philippians had learnt something of that too from Paul. They’d heard and seen what shaped his priorities. Now, Paul isn’t saying he’s perfect. He’s saying: “Emulate me, because I’m emulating Jesus. I’ve spent time with you, and through me you know what the Christian life is meant to look like. So, follow my example.” We can’t just think about what’s excellent, we’ve got to practice it too. So, part of how we grow in the Christian life is to follow the example of other Christians who have got their thinking right. That’s our second point.
The Christian faith doesn’t originate with any of us. We see the way it’s to be lived in other people, and we only really understand someone’s thoughts and priorities by watching what they do. We need teaching, but we also need examples. As the saying goes, lots of the Christian faith is “caught, not taught”. So, again, that will start with looking at the people God used to write the Bible and how they can be examples to us today – from Daniel’s courage in Babylon, or Ruth’s faithfulness in the Old Testament, to Paul’s gospel priorities in the New Testament. Those examples are there to be models for us. Take this letter. Read it over later. Paul is an example to us of joy despite terrible hardship and imprisonment, prayerfulness, contentment, love for other believers. What can we learn from that? And the church today is designed to be a community of examples. There are so many past Christians we can learn so much from today. So, grab some Christian biography, or autobiography. Seriously, do!
A while back, I read a couple of books by Brother Andrew, a Bible smuggler – who for decades risked his life bringing boxes of Bibles to countries closed to the gospel. And I was so encouraged, by his God-given courage, and relentless commit to get God’s word into people’s hands, and that makes me want to do what I can to get the Bible into people’s hands. And we can learn from each other today. We’re meant to look around church and see Godly thinking brought alive in actions and choices. And praise God, we often do! So, some of you more senior members of our church model to me what it looks like to keep going as a Christian over decades, despite hardships and bad health. And I can think of a few of you who have received serious stick from friends, or family, for being Christians and you’ve kept going with patience, love and grace. And we need to look at examples like those. And let them take effect, so that, under God, they can help us respond to hardship and suffering, or to opposition.
One thing I find particularly helpful is following the example of those who have made progress in areas of the Christian life where I struggle. And I think we probably should lean on the examples of other Christians more, by asking them how they’ve made progress and kept going? That’s why small groups, and anything that gets us alongside each other at church, is so important, because we’re spending time with other Christians who model the finished Bible ‘lived out’ in 2021. And we’ve missed so much of this modelling, and learning from each other, because of the pandemic. So, we need to get back to seeing each other when we can, as much as we can. Like having others round, or meeting up with members of our small group.
And we need to be good examples ourselves. And we all can be, with God’s help we all can model something of the Christian life to other people. So, e.g. If you’re an older married couple, are you looking out for a younger married couple and seeking to be an example to them? Because we need examples of enduring, faithful, brothers and sisters who have their thinking right, who are keeping going at living a Godly life. This includes church leaders. Paul, after all, was the founder of the Philippian church. Church leaders are, above all, to lead by example. And the most important thing we should pray for them, is that they are, and remain, an example of godliness and faithfulness.
You might have heard some shocking accounts recently of high-profile church leaders who abused their position and abused those who trusted them. And that serves as a reminder that, though Christians are meant to learn from one another, instead we often fail – and sometimes we fail absolutely terribly and cause enormous hurt. And when that happens, we’re not examples of good Christian living, but of continued sin and of how we all desperately and continually need the Lord Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus is our perfect example, and one which will never let us down. So, I make no apology in saying again, we need to fix our eyes on Him. We need to aim to be like Him. And to stand firm like he did. And the promise of these verses is, that if we keep walking in obedience, if we keep striving to think, and do, what’s right in God’s eyes, then we can take heart because, as Philippians 4.9 says, the God of peace will be with us. And every situation we face, or go through, or experience, will be in his hands. He will be with us. And we will be with him. And that friends, is a wonderful promise. Let’s pray:
Father, our heads are full of many things. Please would they be filled only with what is excellent of you, and of your people. Help us Lord, to be good examples, and to follow good examples, willingly and intentionally. Help us to stand firm, whatever the cost. And we pray that in that, we would know more, and know better, what it is to have your presence, as the God of peace, with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.