There is an awful lot packed into a few lines of text, and it might take us some time to unpack it all This is a clear case of drilling down past the surface of a passage to get to the heart of the matter.
What Paul is telling those in his church in Philippi is that they need to set their minds on the right things in life. A good attitude does wonders for the soul. It has been said that in large part anyway, a positive mind help aid in the healing of the body. If one believes they will overcome, then they will overcome. In philosophical, and maybe psychological terms as well, if someone thinks something long enough for them, it becomes the truth, and it is challenging to extricate them from that thought. What Paul is saying is that it is of the utmost importance that we set our thoughts on the beautiful and useful things, and thankfully, Paul leaves us with a list of those beautiful things.
Whatever things are true: Many things in this world are not accurate or only half correct. We live in a world where if we disagree with something, we call it fake news and move on. We are quick to believe the things that fit within our pattern of thinking rather than having the ability to expand our thoughts as new information becomes available. Just because something was one way at one point does not mean that things are the same now. Sure, there are absolute truths, but those can be rare. We need a discerning heart and mind, and some help from the Holy Spirit, to get us to what the truth is.
Whatever things are noble; some translations use the word honest, honorable, and venerable. There are all these choices because the original Greek word is difficult to translate. It is the word that is characteristically used to describe temples and gods. When applied to describe a person, it is as if the person moves throughout the world as if it were a temple of God. But what the word describes is, that which has the dignity of holiness upon it. There are things in this world that are foolish and things of this world that are serious, and the Christian should be more concerned about the serious, but it is okay to have a little of the foolish now and again as well.
Whatever things are just; the Greek word used here can be translated as duty faced and duty done. The Christian’s first thought should always be on their duty to God. Sure, one can be patriotic, and all that but their first and only allegiance is to God, everything else comes secondary to that.
Whatever is pure; another difficult Greek word to translate, but when used ceremonially, it describes those things that have been cleansed and set apart for the ceremony. It describes those things that are fit to be brought into the very presence of God. Remember that Jewish liturgical practice was that only one man, the high priest, was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies. So sacred was this place that a rope was tied to him, so if something happened, they could pull him out rather than go in after him. Paul is using this to describe those things that are morally undefiled. So, our thoughts and our actions should be such that they could be brought into the very presence of God. This is not just church time of course but in all of our speech and interactions with others in what we say and in what we Tweet.
Whatever is pleasing; or, as in other translations, whatever is lovely or that which calls forth love. There are those people who have their mind so set on vengeance and punishment that all they call forth is bitterness and fear in others. There are those whose mind is so set on criticism and rebuke that they call forth resentment in others. But the mind of the Christian should be set on the lovely things such as; kindness, sympathy, and forbearance. In other words, love your neighbor!
Paul reminds them to “do the things they have learned.” He is telling them that he taught them all of this and they need to remember what they learned. There are two ways to look at theological teaching there are those doctrines that the church puts forward and then we, and by we, I mean me and you, we have to take those doctrines and run them through the lenses of our lives and our teaching. We cannot just take things on face value we need to understand where they came from and how we came about them. But, we also need not fear to adapt or changing the way we think about things. As I mentioned before, just because we have always done it that way does not make it right.
Finally, Paul tells them that if they are faithful, God will remain with them. Paul calls God the God of Peace. This is Paul’s favorite title for God he uses it in almost all of his writings. To the Jew, and Paul, peace was never just the absence of trouble; it was everything that makes for a person’s higher good. Only in friendship with God can we live to our full potential as humanity was supposed to be lived. Again, for the Jew, this peace came from the right relationships not only with God but with other human beings. It is only by God’s amazing grace that we can enter into these right relationships with God and others. We must strive, every day, to live in harmony with other human beings and that means we must strive to understand them, respect them, and honor the divinity that is inside each of them, even if, especially if we disagree with them. For Paul, the command to love others is not just a nice Hallmark card kind of sentiment; it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. If we cannot honestly look at another human being and show them the love and respect they deserve as fellow human beings, then we have no right to call ourselves Christians, bottom line, end of the story. That is indeed the peace of God, which passes all understanding.