It was a common quest among the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to determine the summum bonum—the highest good—of man. Yet, no ancient sage ever summarized the moral duties of man better than the inspired Apostle who wrote the epistle to the Philippians. Paul was not encouraging Christians to think on the various ideals of the philosophers and to combine them with Scriptural truths. Some have attempted to do that and, thereby, have done great harm to the message of salvation. For his part, Paul eschewed heathen philosophy and warned the Colossians: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit” (Col. 2:8). He also advised Timothy to avoid “irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (1 Tim. 6:20).

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that the key to interpreting this verse is to understand the difference between the active Hebrew mind and the abstract thinking of the Greek mind.1 Philippians 4:9 rejects the Greek idea that salvation comes by contemplating various truths. Instead, Paul tells the Philippians to “practice these things” even as they have seen them in him. Truth is for the purpose of promoting godliness. Mere contemplation is never enough. A profane person can spend hours contemplating the loveliness of God’s creation without ever ascending upward in his thoughts to the One who created all things. Such contemplation falls far short of Paul’s admonition to “think about these things” (v. 8).

The Southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell gives us the correct interpretation of this verse:

The design of the Apostle, it rather seems to me, was to recapitulate several prominent heads of duty—to single out certain great characteristics of virtue, and to recommend everything in which these characteristics were found. He is giving us the outlines of an exemplary man, and accordingly seizes upon the fundamental elements of morality—those data of consciousness which every system must acknowledge, which constitute the touchstone and standard of all speculations upon right—and inculcates as duty everything in which these elements essentially enter as constituents.2

Paul paints a word picture for us of the beautiful symmetry of Christian character. The glory of the human body is seen not through a dissection of its various parts but rather in the harmonious working together of each individual part (cf. Eph. 4:16). So, the glory of Christian character is not evidenced by one or more of these moral attributes but by the happy combination of all of them. This verse is one where the forest must first be seen before the individual trees can be observed.

Christian character is not evidenced by one or more of these moral attributes but by the happy combination of all of them.

What Paul does in Philippians 4:8 is similar to what he does elsewhere. He majestically describes the Christian soldier in Ephesians 6 and the Spirit-filled Christian in Galatians 5. In Philippians 4:8, he elucidates the moral character of the believer. The mature man in Christ will have all these moral attributes in beautiful symmetry. The Christian will contemplate and practice whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of excellence, and worthy of praise. Believers pursue God; they pursue after holiness without which no person shall see the Lord; they strive to be holy because God is holy.

We must be careful to not divest Philippians 4:8 from the gospel. Morality cannot save a person because “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). In Philippians 3:3–11, Paul makes it clear that placing confidence in the flesh and being found in Christ are diametrically opposed. All works of the flesh are as rubbish when compared to “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (3:9). Believers are to work out their salvation, but they cannot work for it. Paul knows very well that the moral character he describes in Philippians 4:8 is never perfectly formed in any Christian until he is perfected in holiness at his death. Every believer will be stronger in one or more of these attributes than he is in others. Thus, Paul himself presses “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ” (3:14).

There is a descending scale3 in the arrangement of these attributes. The first four of them—true, honorable, right, and pure—are the absolute qualities that we must pursue. The last four—lovely, good repute, excellence, and worthy of praise—deal with the approbation and motives for pursuing these characteristics.4 Christians are to meditate on things that are true, not on those that are false; on things that are honorable, not on those that are frivolous and foolish; on things that are right, not on those that are unjust; on things that are pure, not on those that are filthy; on things that are lovely, not on those that are excessive and riotous; on things that are reputable, not on those that are disreputable; on things that are excellent, not on those that are blemished; and on things that are worthy of praise, not on those that are condemnable. This is not all that Paul has to say about the Christian in his epistles, but it is an important and beautiful description of the Christian’s character. Let us dwell on these things.


  1. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Peace: An Exposition of Philippians 3 and 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1992), 180. ↩︎
  2. The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 2, Theological and Ethical (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1974), 454. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎

  4. J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975), 161. ↩︎

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