Thinking and Doing
It was one of Paul’s goals as he exercised his gospel ministry in the first century of the Christian era to present everyone mature in Christ. I have no desire to downplay the importance of conversion and the immense and fundamental changes that occur in a person’s life when he or she is converted but conversion is only the beginning. Yes, by conversion a person is introduced to new life but only as a “babe in Christ”. The babe is meant to grow. And there is something seriously wrong if he doesn’t. Paul worked hard and prayed hard that his ministry might prove to be effective in helping such Christians to grow up to spiritual maturity.
I don’t know whether you like to think of yourself as a mature Christian or not. If you have been a Christian a long time you might even find the question impertinent if you were to be asked: “Are you a mature Christian?” However being a mature Christian is not automatically linked to the number of years you have made a profession of faith but it is directly linked to the degree of progress you have made in the faith since first you received it.
So let me ask you a couple of questions:
· Firstly, “Have you made any such progress?”
· And secondly: “Are you still making good progress?
I hope that whatever answer you might have give to those questions will be accompanied by a genuine desire to make progress from now on.
In recent weeks we have been thinking about a short series of instructions that Paul gave to the Christian church in Philippi, instructions which, if followed carefully, would lead them on to Christian maturity.
We have seen that the Christian must learn what it is to rejoice in the Lord and to do so at all times regardless of whether the circumstances are favourable or not.
We have seen too that the Christian must not allow his life to be coloured by self-centred selfishness but he is to live his life openly having nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.
And we have seen that the Christian must not give way to anxiety but, because he has a God who cares for him and who is near to help him, he must learn to take all his concerns to this God in serious thankful prayer.
When the Christian determines to live out his life in accordance with these instructions we have also seen that he can expect that the God of peace will extend the blessing of peace to him. Indeed the peace that God gives will act as a military garrison that surrounds the believer keeping him safe while he continues on his homeward journey towards heaven where peace is the natural atmosphere.
This morning we turn again to Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul has yet more instructions to give us concerning the life of a mature Christian believer.
The two verses we’re going to focus on contain two more important commands that the believer who wants to grow spiritually must follow. The first concerns the Christian’s thinking and the second the Christian’s behaviour. This is not at all to say that we can save ourselves by what we think and by what we do – no, salvation is a free gift of God’s grace that we receive when we exercise faith in Jesus and in particular in what he has done for us on the cross of Calvary. Nevertheless what we think and what we do really does matter as we live out the new Christian life we have been given.
Let me read the words of our text to you:
Phil.4:8-9 “Finally, brothers, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul does not have in mind every idea that may occasionally pop into the believer’s mind – for some thoughts come unprompted and undesired. What Paul does have in mind is what the Christian regularly and deliberately turns his thoughts towards when he can choose what he wants to think about. Similarly, Paul’s emphasis when it comes to doing is upon what the Christian regularly seeks to do, that which characterises his lifestyle choices, and not upon those lapses and slip-ups which will often cause the believer grief.
As Paul concludes what he has to say about the way to achieve Christian maturity he wants the believer to keep his focus sharp. The believer is to exercise control both over his thought life and over the behaviour he regularly adopts. And if you a Christian this morning the God who inspired the apostle wants you to control both the way you think and the things you do.
It was a fairly common occurrence in the ancient world to find authors writing out their Virtue and Vice lists. They would contrast those moral elements of human life that they deemed praiseworthy with those that they considered despicable. In the NT Paul did something similar when he wrote to the Galatians contrasting the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit:
Gal.5:19-23 “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Now here, in writing to the Philippians, Paul writes out another virtue list, it is a list of wholesome and laudable matters which he urges the Philippians to focus upon. And he followed his own advice written to the Ephesians about not mentioning the sordid that should be avoided:
Eph.5:3 “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”
The list of positive things the believer can fill his mind with is a great list with massive possibilities and great horizons – listen again to how he describes what the Christian believer can usefully turn his mind to:
v.8 “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”
There is an expansiveness here that we must recognise. The scope of wholesome Christian reflection is vast and we must not miss it. The worldly appreciation of the Christian life is that it is narrow and stunted and restricted in every way – and this has indeed been Satan’s ploy since the very beginning. Do you remember how in the garden of Eden God gave the fruit of all the trees to Adam and Eve for food with just one exception? How generous and kind God was! But that didn’t stop Satan calling his generosity and kindness into question did it? His twisted question was designed to make God look negative and mean.
Gen.3:1 “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
And the world continues to twist things trying to make out that God is a kill-joy but the Christian has many, a great many, things to turn his mind to and to ponder on:
“whatever”, “whatever”, “whatever” – Paul repeats the word six times over. How glad we should be that we live in a world which is so rich and so full of good and wholesome things! And just because we are now functioning in a church context let us not be too quick to limit this to the religious or spiritual realm either. The use of that word “whatever” really should encourage us to widen our horizons.
Yes, we do live in a fallen world where sin has touched and tainted everything we know and experience but sin has not made everything as bad as it can possibly be – we live in a world where there is happily so much that is good, so much that is beautiful and positive. The Christian of all people should be well placed to appreciate this because this world has been created by his Lord, is cared for by his Lord and is being recreated by his Lord.
Christian, says Paul, learn to think about the right things – the many good and positive things that exist in life – there are many things that are true and genuine, that are honourable and about which you need feel no shame, there are many things that are right and fair and equitable in our world and there is much that is pure and clean, along with things that are lovely and attractive, appealing and satisfying, there are indeed so many items that can be recommended without hesitation or reserve to all who will listen.
We live in a rich world and we should not allow the enemy to deceive us into thinking otherwise. Paul’s list in fact includes a very wide range including both matters that are moral others that are not. “Whatever is lovely” would for example include the many and varied beauties of God’s creative work and the Christian believer can profitably consider “the works of his hands” especially if he does not forget the Maker as he considers that which he has made.
Yes, of course there is plenty that does not fit into any of these wholesome categories. Our world intrinsically recognises that with its 9pm watershed rule on TV which tries to shield our children from unsuitable material. Sometimes we call such material as being unsuitable for children because it relates to so-called adult themes which is, all too frequently just a euphemism for something far worse. Indeed for most of the time those adult themes include, what Ofcom describes as unsuitable material that is, “everything from sexual content to violence, graphic or distressing imagery and swearing.”
Now of course it is good to protect our children from such “unsuitable material” but how adults need to protect themselves too. And yet so many don’t. The most popular searches on the internet are not seeking out good and wholesome content, they are looking for pornography. The technology wasn’t particularly advanced in Paul’s day but the human heart was pretty much the same then as it is now and what the apostle recommended for believers in his day is still very appropriate for us in ours. Think about these good and pure things. We really do need to be careful as to what we fill our minds with and to do that we need to take control of our thoughts directing them in a positive direction.
While the advice Paul gives as to focusing upon “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” is not to be limited to the religious or spiritual sphere it is nevertheless highly and especially relevant in those spheres.
Let’s consider together for a few moments just the first item on Paul’s list and I hope you’ll see what I mean.
Paul begins his list with “whatever is true”. Now if you look up the word “true” in a concordance you’ll find that is appears many times in the NT. Some of the time it is simply used to affirm the truthfulness of a statement but many times it is used in a slightly different way to affirm the genuineness or the integrity of a person. And in this way it is repeatedly used of both Jesus and God. Let me read you some examples. I’ll begin with references to Jesus – note the breadth of ideas that are involved as they give us ample food for thought which is precisely why Paul commends it to us!
Mk.12:14 “And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?””
The words are found in the mouths of opponents of Jesus who are trying to catch him out but they begin by recognising Jesus’ integrity. He is “true” that is he is honest, genuine and upright, a man who isn’t swayed by his audience but a man who constantly does the right thing and habitually speaks the truth.
Jn.1:9 “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
In the opening verses of his gospel the apostle John wrote about the one whose very life was the light of men. And he carefully identified Jesus as the One who brought this light for he was himself the authentic light, the true light – others might make their claims but this One was the genuine one – the real deal.
Jn.6:32 “Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
Jn.6:55. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
In these two verses Jesus spoke about himself as being the spiritual nourishment that alone could satisfy the hungry spiritual needs of his hearers. Yes, God had in the past met their physical needs in the desert wanderings by supplying a previously unknown bread but that bread was a mere foretaste, if you’ll excuse the pun, of the real nourishment that God supplied from heaven in the person of his son.
Then in Jn.15 Jesus describes himself in terms which would have been very familiar to the Jews of his day. In the OT God’s people had been referred to as a vine that God had cared for now Jesus declared:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.
In the final book of the Bible John continued to refer to Jesus by describing as being true: he was the true one, the faithful and true witness and sitting on his white horse he is the one who judges righteously and is called Faithful and True. (Rev.3:7; 14; 19:11).
Apart from the Lord Jesus the person who is most frequently described in the NT as being true is God the Father:
Jesus referred to his Father in this way in his high priestly prayer:
Jn.17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
The apostle Paul wrote like this about the Father in a range of his letters:
To the Romans he wrote:
“Let God be true though every one were a liar”
And to the Thessalonians Paul wrote describing how they had experienced conversion:
1Thess.1:9 “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,”
Finally in the Book of Revelation John recorded the prayer of the martyrs:
Rev.6:10 “They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Each and all of these supply us with plenty of food for thought and for meditation – if only we will take the time to think and to reflect as Paul urges us to do.
We have focused our thoughts on just the first of Paul’s “whatevers” but before we move on we should perhaps take note that the entire list of qualities seems to correspond very well with what he lays down elsewhere as the criteria to be met by those who are involved in Christian leadership (Tit.1:7-8; 1Tim.3:1-3).
Well we have spent quite some on Paul’s exhortation to think well and now we must turn more briefly to consider Paul’s last command and then we will close.
In some senses this final command serves to sum up all that has gone before and it is rounded off with a lovely promise. We read them both in v.9:
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul was no armchair theologian and he did not expect other believers to be only armchair Christians either. No, like the apostle James he expected Christians to be “doers of the word and not hearers only”.
Paul wasn’t content simply to teach and to pass on the truth that he himself had received he was determined to live it out in his own life and in so doing pattern a model for others to follow.
How determined am I to do myself what this morning I’m telling you to do? How important is it for me to practice what I preach? The famous Scottish preacher Robert McCheyne is reported as having once stated that his people’s greatest need was his own personal holiness. And what he meant was that his usefulness as a minister of the gospel was critically linked to himself living out in his own life the truths of the gospel he proclaimed.
And how concerned are you to put into practice what you have been taught by the word of God? How keen you are to follow the example of others who have taken it all seriously and acted upon the truth that they have heard?
Christianity is not a spectator sport. None of us are asked by God to sit back and to applaud what he has taught us or simply to admire his instructions. But all of us who profess to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are expected to be participants – soldiers fighting, athletes running, boxers boxing. We are meant to be active and this means that we are to work out the salvation that God has already worked into our lives. Are you prepared to make the effort? And make no mistake an effort is involved. When you make the effort one day you’ll find you have to make the same effort the next and the next and the day after. Indeed you’ll have to do it every day until he comes or calls you home. This is the perseverance of the saints and God gives us all the grace we need. Will you go to him for the grace you need and will you do that on an ongoing daily basis?
But Paul doesn’t finish with a challenge but with a wonderful promise. If you’re tempted to imagine that this type of Christian life will be the spiritual equivalent of “all work but no play” let me remind you of what is promised to the Christian who follows these instructions, it comes at the end of v.9 and completes the earlier promise of v.7.
So let’s end this morning by uniting those two promises together here. To the obedient, practising Christian is promised the peace of God to keep him and the God of peace to accompany him. And can you imagine a greater blessing than that?
To God be the glory!