Since our actions testify to our thoughts, Paul encouraged his readers to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable. In making choices, Alistair Begg urges us to use Paul’s list to check our motives, frame our manners, and establish our morals. As we drill our minds in godly thinking, surround our circumstances with prayer, and subject ourselves to Scripture’s instruction, God’s peace will guard and keep us, and the God of peace will be with us.
Now would you turn your attention once again to Philippians 4:8–9, where Paul writes, “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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Now, these two verses, as we’ve noted before, provide us with a reminder of the necessary link in Christian perspective between thinking and doing, between pondering and practicing, between learning and living. And they’re a reminder to us—at least in part—that we are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are; and that as we think, so we are. Indeed, our thoughts reveal more about the true character of our lives than any other thing. When our actions follow our thinking, then we give testimony to our thoughts, but when we conceal our thoughts, then, known only to God and to ourselves, they are a true monitor of who we are and what we are.
And here in this fourth chapter, the apostle has issued a very practical call to this church that he loves. He’s called them to pray instead of worrying, and he has promised them that if they do so they will know “the peace of God.” The peace of God guarding their hearts and their minds in Christ will not come about in a vacuum, it will not come about in abstraction, but will be the experience of the Christian as he or she follows the pattern which he provides for us here, particularly in verse 8. And as we noted last time, a mind that is full of verse 8 will have little room for anxiety and for the kind of peace-disrupting, joy-destroying experience that is often the case in life. When our minds are focused on the things of which God approves, then we may anticipate discovering both his peace and his presence with us. And we tried, on last occasion, to make very clear in our minds the direct correlation that exists between the patterns that we train our minds in and then the actions which follow from our thinking.
I recall reading of a roadway in Northern Canada which apparently had a signpost in the entryway to it which simply said, “Take care which rut you choose. You will be in it for the next twenty-five miles.” And that was, I would imagine, a very helpful piece of advice and an indication of what was about to take place. Now, that is a reminder to us of the fact that it is with our minds that we establish either the grooves or the channels or the ruts that frame the actions which follow. And this, of course, is not an emphasis that is unique to Paul. It is a recurring theme for Paul—he mentions it with frequency in his letters—and this is a very succinct reminder of it here. The Christian approach is to establish our thinking, then, on the basis of what is “excellent” and “praiseworthy,” the things of which God approves.
And he provides for us a list of six things, the first of which is truth: “Whatever is true,” he says, “I want you to think about that.” You may remember that when he writes to the Ephesian believers in Ephesians 6 and he describes for them the armor that they are to take to themselves in waging Christian warfare, he says, “[and have] the belt of truth buckled around your waist.” He then goes on to point out that the other aspects of the armor attach and are secured by the belt of truth, making the point very clearly that when we fail to wear the belt of truth, then we make it impossible to benefit from the other aspects of the armor—truth that is found objectively in the Lord Jesus Christ, and truth that is experienced subjectively as we, as men and women, become truth tellers and truth livers. Whatever, then, is true.
Secondly, “whatever is noble.” “Noble.” It’s not a word that we use a great deal; it has been lost, in some cases, in English usage, referring to individuals. But it simply means that which is majestic or that which is awe-inspiring. It is the opposite of that which is base and earthly and mundane and routine. It is the opposite of the gutter. It is, if you like, the spire, not the gutter. And he says, “I want you to be training your minds to approve of that—to think of that—which is the opposite of that which is frivolous and that which is trivial.”
The word actually connotes a seriousness about things. And you will, for example, have noted at various points along the journey of Christian history that certain people have taken very seriously the fact that we are to be very serious. And so the Puritans, for example—most of their photographs are very, very serious. They don’t seem to do a lot of smiling. Why is that? Because they wanted to be taking seriously the fact that they’re supposed to be serious. However, when we take the balance of Scripture, we know that there is a place for solemnity; there is also a place for hilarity. And indeed, the seriousness of the response of the people in Nehemiah’s day, which induced tears as they thought of the awe-inspiring truths of God, were such that the advice that was then given to them in their solemnity was to go away, to eat together and to drink together, and to rejoice in one another’s company, “for the joy of the Lord is [our] strength.”
Now, I mention that simply to put things in perspective. The Christian will have no problem thinking seriously once the Christian gets round to seriously thinking. And the reason that you have people who do not think seriously is because you do not have people who seriously think. And one of the great problems at the present time, of course, is an absence of thoughtfulness amongst Christians, who are called supremely to be thinkers. And they’re not to be the kind of people who are feeding their minds on People magazine and on the sort of trashy, frivolous, trivialities which are the preoccupations of so much of our secular society. But they are to be those instead who are thinking about that which is not only true but which is also noble.
And along with that, that which is “right.” Now, the word which is used here for “right” is a word to describe that which is morally pure and undefiled—morally pure and undefiled. When the Christian is thinking along these lines, it will direct his or her choices. It is in contrast to the kind of thinking which makes decisions on the basis of that which is expedient or convenient or that which provides immediate gratification.
When you’re in Hong Kong next, you will note that as you walk even the most traveled thoroughfares, you will be confronted not only by signage that is of a most graphic sexual nature, but you will also encounter people standing underneath the signs and at the entryway to all of these places, saying to you as you walk down the street—in my case it was walking to deliver the Bible readings at the Hong Kong Keswick Convention—and all these little Chinese men saying, “Ha, English! Come in, now. Have happy time, happy time! Look! Lovely time! Come for lovely time, now!” And what they’re calling you to is immediate gratification.
Now, how are you going to make a decision? Unless you have your compass set before you start, there’s no saying where you might end up. If you go on the basis of how you feel, there’s no saying how you might end up. If you allow yourself to be pressurized by the immediacy of the opportunity or the urgency of the call or the loneliness of your life, there is no saying where you will end up. That’s why it’s important you choose the rut you’re going to be in for the next twenty-five miles, or for the next twenty-five minutes, or for the next twenty-five seconds, let alone the next twenty-five years.
That’s what distinguished Joseph from David, was it not? When the encounter came, Joseph made a decision on the basis of what is right—not on the basis of what is expedient, not on the basis of what was immediately gratifying to him. And when pursued by Potiphar’s wife, you’ll remember his response in Genesis 39:9: “How … could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” In other words, “I don’t think this is a good idea”—he didn’t say that. “I don’t feel like this”—he didn’t say that. “I don’t think this would be good for you, the word might get out”—he didn’t say any of that! He said, “Listen, I’m thinking on the basis of what is right. And when I apply what is right, then I have to tailor everything else to that fact.”
In a society that has become used to making decisions on the basis of what is expedient, what is profitable, the Christian is to stand out by deciding on the basis of what is noble—noble. What is right. What is “pure”—morally pure and undefiled. Paul says to Timothy—1 Timothy 5:22—“Keep yourself pure.” You don’t have to be a genius to understand that. John writes in 1 John 3:3, whoever “has this hope”—namely, the hope of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ—whoever “has this hope [within] him purifies himself, [even] as he is pure.”
Now, this comes down to the most simple levels of operation for each of us. There’s nothing high-minded about this. There’s nothing way up there about this. This is down where we live our lives.
I remember visiting a church out on the West Coast, and in the course of Saturday morning conversation with the leadership of the church was asked what kind of books I like to read apart from the Bible. They were assuming that I read the Bible, I guess. I said that I like to read, amongst other things, on that day I mentioned Alistair MacLean books—The Guns of Navarone and all those things. And the man said, “Oh, I like Alistair MacLean books, and I love those kind of novels, and those mysteries, and everything else.” And I had said to this man, I said, “One of the reasons I like MacLean is because there’s nothing dirty in the book.” There’s never anything that you couldn’t be caught reading Alistair MacLean books. You could read them out loud on the plane, you can hold the covers up for everybody to see. And Alistair MacLean’s father was a Presbyterian minister. And MacLean said that he wrote his books with an eye on his dad. And he felt very comfortable that his novels—which had sold millions and had become the basis of modern filmmaking—he was very comfortable that he literally had the files of his father’s sermons sitting beside the novels he had written on his own personal shelving in his study. And he said, “The two can exist side-by-side.”
And this gentleman and I had a conversation along this line: “Oh,” he said, “have you read Mr. So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So?”
I said, “No, I never have.”
He said, “Oh, I have to get that for you!”
I said, “Well fine, I’ll look forward to it.”
Well, that was the Saturday morning. The Sunday morning, I went to preach at the church, and I came to sit down on the front row. And as I sat down on the front row, I was conscious of someone sidling up beside me. This chap comes up beside me, and he goes, “There you are! It’s the book I was telling you about.” And I took it like this, like the baton was being passed to me in a relay race, and I moved it over, and I took it upside down, and I turned it over. I couldn’t believe the cover! I can’t remember what the cover was, but it was like whoa! I put it straight under the hymnbook. Right under the hymnbook! Man! Because I didn’t want anyone thinking—if someone come later, sat down next to me—that this was what I was reading, you know, in between the services or something. I got this cover, I said, “Holy smoke, what is this?”
So, I took it, and then I took it back to the man’s house I was staying in—not the same man. That was Sunday. Didn’t do anything with it, laid it down, went back, preached the evening service, went home, fell asleep, got up in the morning, and I was leaving out of the International Airport in San Francisco. And baggage had been checked, and I had in my possession hand luggage, and in my hand luggage I had this book. And as I walked through the airport, I was thinking all the same thoughts that you usually think, you know: “If this thing goes down and it doesn’t all burn up in flames, somebody is bound to find this book. They will never find my Bible; they will find this book.” And so I remember putting it in one of those ashtray things in San Francisco, where you stub it out on the top but there’s a hole on the side, and I jammed that sucker right in through there, and I said, “Goodnight, Irene,” and I walked away.
You say, “Well, it sounds like you’ve really conquered that one, huh?” Well, I conquered that one. But, of course, tomorrow there’ll be something else to conquer. “Yesterday’s dead and gone,” you know? To quote Kristofferson. “And tomorrow’s out of sight.” “I don’t care whether you were pure twenty years ago,” somebody says. “I care whether you’re pure tonight.”
“Whatsoever things are lovely.” “Lovely.” The word here means that which promotes brotherly love. In other words, it’s the opposite of friction. Friction’s easy. Animosity’s easy. You can produce that at the drop of a hat. But the word here is that which approves and pursues the acceptable and the pleasing, that which is the accompaniment of genuine grace, that which is the experience of the individual who is making a lovely contribution by having her mind focused on what is lovely. Lovely people think about lovely things. It’s as simple as that.
And what is “admirable.” The word that is used here in the King James Version, or the word that is here is translated in the King James Version, what is “of good report.” If you have a King James Version in front of you, it says that: “If there’s anything excellent, if there’s anything of good report.” I remember that from the old days. The only other place you get it is 2 Corinthians 6, where the very phrase is used. Paul’s talking about those who give a “bad report” or a “good report,” and it has to do with fair speaking. It has to do with listening to reports that build people up as opposed to listening to reports which tear down, which disappoint, and which destroy.
Well, there you have the list—a list we can use to check our motives, to frame our manners, and to establish our morals. Here’s a little virtuous section of the Bible that virtually is comprehensive in relationship to these things. How should we behave? How should we treat one another? What should drive us? What should move us? Check it against this list. What should the manner of my life be? Check it against the list. What should my morality be? Check it against the list. What should I read? Pass it through this list. How should I decide which music I purchase? Pass it through the list. Should I be at this movie? Pass it through the list. It’s lovely, isn’t it? So tremendously helpful. If you like, we are the sheep, and this is where we’re to graze. Here are the fields; this is the grass to eat. Remember that the virtue of which Paul is speaking here is the fruit that grows on the tree of salvation, the trunk of which is faith, and the roots are embedded in grace.
Now, let me just draw this to a close. Step back with me for a moment from the canvas, as it were, on which he’s painting these lovely pictures—from the still life, if you like—and look at the big picture for a moment. If we are to enjoy the power of God at work within us… Remember, he talked about “it is God [who works] in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” What is “his good pleasure”? It is to have his good people thinking these good thoughts. If we are to know and enjoy the power of God at work within us—if we are to experience his peace upholding us and his presence securing us—then, says Paul, we must surround our circumstances with prayer. That’s verse 6: don’t be anxious; pray about everything. We must drill our minds in godly thinking; that’s verse 8. And we must subject our lives to the Word of God: what we “heard,” “learned,” “received,” etc., we “put it into practice.”
Now, let me tell you something: in the course of pastoral ministry, there are exceptions to this. Because there are tyrannous times that come; there are difficult days that besiege us all. And I don’t want to make a dreadful generalization here, but it is a generalization: so many believers whose lives are a walking disaster zone, who go from one state of confusion to the next, come to seek pastoral guidance and help absent these three foundational factors which every Christian knows—namely, that my circumstances are to be surrounded by prayer, that my mind is to be drilled in the truth of God’s Word, and that my life is to be subject to the instruction of Scripture. And these individuals, their minds are neither drilled by truth, their lives are not under the instruction of God’s Word, and they do not surround their circumstances with prayer. And therefore, you don’t have to be particularly skillful in diagnosis, and you don’t have to be a genius in offering cure, to turn such individuals to the three things that I’m pointing out to you now.
Now, you will notice that all of our learning is for living. That, if you listen to Truth For Life, is our little subtitle: “Where the learning is for living.” What’s the point of learning all this stuff if you don’t live it?
And that’s verse 9. Look at the verbs: “learned,” “received,” “heard,” “seen.” If our minds are to be correctly fed, then they need to be nourished by the teaching and preaching and example of the Word lived out. It is, as I said this morning, for this very reason that we should be diligent in our attendance when the Word of God is being expounded: so that we can listen, so that we can look, so that we can learn, so that we can receive, and so that we can then do. The NIV has the phrase “put it into practice.” The Authorized Version simply has the word “do” it. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me, do it.”
You remember the words of Jesus in John 13? He says to his disciples, after he’s been teaching them for a while, he says, “Now … you know these things, you will be blessed…” Do you know the verse? John 13:17. If you know the verse, it doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t say, “Now … you know these things, you will be blessed.” He says, “Now … you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” If you don’t, you won’t. It’s as simple as that.
People say, “Well, I don’t know why I live under the shadow. I don’t know why it is I don’t live with God’s blessing.” Well, part of the answer is grounded in the fact that we don’t seriously think; therefore, we don’t think seriously; we don’t groove our minds in the truth of God’s Word; we don’t know his attendant peace; and therefore, we don’t know his blessing. Because we don’t do what he says. Can we hold the Lord guilty when he has given us such rich instruction, has given us the Spirit to be our enabler? And yet we get up on another Monday morning and fail to put into practice what we have learned and received and heard and seen.
What a sadness when a church becomes like a dusty old library, with all these lives like volumes of truth, just sitting there! You go in somebody’s library, and it’s clear that there hasn’t been a book taken down from the shelf in months—maybe because the person wasn’t there, the owner wasn’t there, or he fell asleep, or he chose not to read. But you have the impression that it’s just a musty, dusty, fusty kind of place. And indeed, if you take a book down, and you beat on it... Whoa!
Do you know how quickly Parkside Church will get like that? You’ll become a dusty old volume of truth. You may even be a fat volume of truth. You may be a skinny volume of truth. But a volume of truth. You may be congratulating yourself, saying, “I’m a volume of truth. I’m on shelf fourteen, subsection three, category X. I know the truth, and the truth will set me free.” Set you free? You’re stuck! You’re fusty, musty, and dusty! Decidedly unattractive.
Now, I never encountered a church that instructed its people in such a way that they were determined to become one of these libraries—where they would all be like static volumes, just sitting there, becoming increasingly aware of the truth so that they might imbibe it and absorb it and then just sit there and think about it. We’re to become a gallery of living experience, a vibrancy about us, so that when others come in, confronting the problem that we ourselves are not immune to—namely, anxiety—we’ll be able to tell them that there is a problem to be faced, it’s anxiety; there is a pattern to be followed, and it is that we would take the truth of God’s Word and believe it and live it; and there is a promise to be discovered—namely, not only that the peace of God will guard and keep you, but “the God of peace will be with you.”
So let us then determine that we will give ourselves to concentrate on the real versus the phony; the serious rather than the frivolous; the right rather than the convenient; the clean, not the dirty; the loving, not the discordant; and the helpful, not the critical. And then I believe that we will be as a light on a hill, and those who are tired of the darkness will want to come and experience this vibrant gallery of living faith. But I do not anticipate them coming to move around the fusty, musty volumes of static truth, in lives that have lost touch with the head.
Father, thank you for your Word—practical, relevant, challenging. Thank you that you give it to us with such clarity because you love us so wonderfully—that you long for your children to be marked by maturity and by grace. Fill our minds, then, with the truth of your Word, not so that we will become boring volumes of theological accuracy, but so that we might become lively sermons—joyful, truthful, noble, admirable, God-honoring lives. Receive our praise and our worship and our evening offerings as we bring them to you in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 Philippians 4:7 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 6:14 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV 1984).
 Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It through the Night” (1970).
 Philippians 4:8 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 6:8 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:13 (KJV).