A pattern for Christian discipleship
For the last three months or so, while our pastor-teacher has been on sabbatical, the other elders of our church have been taking on Sunday mornings us through a journey of the book of Philippians. Unlike many other of Paul’s letters, Philippians does not deal directly with any major problem in the church. There are, however, hints throughout the letter that there was some disharmony at Philippi. In chapter 4, Paul directly addresses the issue. He identifies two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, who were at odds with one another and gives a prescription on how to deal with their strife (4:2–9).
Paul’s exhortation to these women is not directed to them alone. Sin in a church spreads like leaven, and so it appears that their strife had begun to move throughout the church corporately. The apostle’s words are intended to arrest the problem, not only between Euodia and Syntyche, but in the church at large.
As he draws his exhortation regarding peace and harmony to a close, he calls on the church to follow a pattern of Christian discipleship. That is really his heart in 4:8–9. These verses form the end of his exhortation to the church. In what follows, he thanks them for their faithfulness to him in the past and concludes with a greeting. But here, in 4:8–9, he summarises his challenge to them throughout the letter by exhorting them to follow this pattern of Christian discipleship—a pattern that has four elements to it. This pattern has much to say to us, too.
The first element in the pattern of Christian discipleship is meditation. Paul urges his readers to “think about these things” (v. 8). Christian meditation does not encourage you to empty your mind. Christian meditation, says J. Ligon Duncan, “is the activity of calling to mind and thinking over and dwelling on and applying yourself to the various things that you know about the works and the ways and the purposes and promises of God, from God’s word.”
The Puritans used to say that cultivating heavenly-mindedness was dependent on the believer meditating on six things: the majesty of God, the severity of sin, the beauty of Christ, the certainty of death, the finality of judgement, and the misery of hell. In Philippians 4:8, Paul gives his own list of six things that Christians must meditate on.
We should note that, while all six things here are true of Scripture, he is not actually telling us to focus on Scripture. His exhortation is more general. We should focus on “whatever” is characterised by these qualities. The late John Stott was an avid bird enthusiast. He wrote a book titled The Birds, Our Teachers, in which he reflects on lessons that he had learned about Christianity from watching birds. He spoke of his bird watching as “ornitheology”—learning about God from the study of birds. Paul is here exhorting us in much the same direction: Meditate on “whatever” is characterised by these six qualities—whether you are reading the Bible or watching birds.
First, we should meditate on “whatever is true.” God’s word is, of course, truth (John 17:17), but the exhortation here is more general. We are told here to fix our mind on things that are true rather than focusing on imaginary fantasy or baseless slander.
We sometimes can be tempted to create imaginary realities in our heads. Perhaps someone neglects to greet you at church, and you immediately conclude that they are angry with you. Perhaps you wake up with a headache and begin convincing yourself that you have a brain tumour. Usually, these things have no basis in truth and so we ought not to meditate on them. Instead, we should think about “whatever is true.”
On the other hand, do we not tend to delight in spreading wild rumours as if they are gospel truth? This is one of the curses of social media. Instead of first verifying the validity of the shocking things we read, we instead just hit the share button and thereby participate in the perpetuation of slander. “Better safe than sorry,” we may reason, but Paul replies, “Think about ‘whatever is true.’”
Second, we should meditate on “whatever is honourable.” Here, the instruction is to meditate on things that are intrinsically noble rather than trivial, temporal, mundane, common and earthly. The word translated “honourable” is elsewhere to describe the dignity must be characteristic of deacons (1 Timothy 3:8) and older men (Titus 2:2). We live in an age of protracted adolescence, where people do not apply their minds to serious matters. Pokémon Go, a location-based augmented reality game for mobile devices, was downloaded ten million times within the first week of its release. By the end of its first month, downloads had risen to one hundred million. By the end of that first month, the game had earned $160 million through in-game purchases. All in a game in which you walk around, staring at your phone and trying to catch imaginary Japanese creatures. While affording oneself moments of frivolity may not be inherently wrong, one must wonder whether triviality of this sort qualifies as thinking about “whatever is honourable.”
Third, we should meditate on “whatever is just.” “Just” here describes those things that are characterised by righteousness. Specifically, it has to do with the way we relate to one another. For our part, we should focus on behaving righteously toward others. Conversely, it is not helpful to dwell on the wrongs that others may do to you. One wonders whether the source of Euodia and Syntyche’s strife was one or both of them dwelling on a wrong committed to them by the other—either perceived or real. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on such things; dwell, instead, on the fact that you serve a righteous God and are therefore expected to behave righteously toward others (Micah 6:8).
Fourth, we should meditate on “whatever is pure.” This word carries the idea of general innocence (2 Corinthians 7:11), but is also used specifically of chastity (2 Corinthians 11:2). You may, for example, struggle with lust. The solution is to replace those thoughts with pure thoughts. When lustful thoughts enter your mind, run to Scripture. Focus on the pure word of God, which will drive impure thoughts from your mind.
Fifth, we should meditate on “whatever is lovely.” Here, we are told to focus on those things that commend themselves by their intrinsic attractiveness or agreeableness. The word might be translated “winsome.” Again, this seems to speak directly to the situation in Philippi, for Euodia and Syntyche needed to “agree in the Lord” (v. 2). Don’t focus on those things that will cause strife with others; instead, think about those things that will enable you to be agreeable and gracious toward others.
Sixth, we should meditate on “whatever is commendable.” “Commendable” speaks of things that warrant a good reputation. The KJV speaks of things that are “of good report.” There are all sorts of negative reports in our world, and reality demands that we be exposed to them. But we should deliberately focus on good reports.
The second element in this pattern of discipleship is instruction. Paul speaks to the Philippians about what they had “learned and received” (v. 9). Our nature is corrupted by sin, and so we do not naturally think and do what is right. It takes deliberate effort to even “think about” the things Paul has just spoken of. That is why we need instruction. That is why we need to learn and receive the things that God expects of us.
If Euodia and Syntyche focused only on what came naturally to them, their strife would not end. Instead, they needed to remember what they had “learned and received” through the instruction of God’s word.
If we want to honour God, we cannot follow our natural inclinations. Discipleship requires instruction. We need to expose ourselves to opportunities to be instructed and then pay close attention to that instruction so that it can change the way we live.
The third element in the pattern of discipleship is direction. Paul writes of “what you have … heard and seen in me” (v. 9). It would not do for the Philippians to learn from a TV preacher, or to simply learn and receive instruction via the Internet. They needed to see that truth lived out. They needed to avail themselves of opportunities to actually witness truth being exemplified in the lives of those who taught it. That is how they would get direction.
If you want to learn how to do something—play a musical instrument or perform surgery, for example—you can just read instructions in a book or on the Internet. You may even have limited success. But the only way to really learn how to do something is to have it lived out in front of you. The same is true for Christian discipleship.
The fourth, and final, element in this pattern of discipleship is application. They had “learned and received” the truth and had “heard and seen” it lived out by Paul. Now they were to “practice these things.” Head knowledge was insufficient; they needed to do what they had learned.
It is vital as a Christian to connect yourself to a solid local church, where you will be exposed in all sorts of settings to truth, but it benefits you nothing if you simply hear it and assent to it; you must do what you have learned, received, heard and seen in this place.
It must also just be said that these things are not how you become a Christian. These are exhortations for those who have already believed the gospel. Doing these things earns you no merit before God. If you have not first dealt with your sins and the claims of Jesus Christ, following this pattern will be meaningless to you. Before you begin following this pattern, first ensure that you have repented of your sins and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Then, and only then, will this pattern become something that you can follow with actual benefit to your soul.