Have you ever turned off the television set after a marathon Saturday night, and said with a twinge of shame: “I guess I saw some things tonight that I now regret”? We all have. We let our guard down; it’s just too easy to leave the remote control sitting on the night stand; we’ve already seen parts one, two, and three of a “miniseries” episode, and even though this concluding segment violates our Christian principles, we do want to see how the story turns out.
How many of us have heard an off-color joke . . . and forced a laugh because we didn’t want to seem out of place? Or read a book on an airplane which had a story that failed to uplift?
About a decade ago, a small mom-and-pop video store got some headlines and a few sneers when they started up a rather prosperous sideline. They were taking the hit video, Titanic, and snipping out two steamy love scenes between the fictional Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater. It was just a few seconds sliced out of James Cameron’s three-hour mega-story, but they had sold several thousand copies. Apparently quite a few people wanted to see the biggest film hit ever made but didn’t want to view these brief celluloid moments which violated something inside of them. And maybe what created this controversial cottage industry is the very well-known verse you and I find here in Philippians chapter four.
I’d like to invite you to join me this morning on what I’m going to call a search for purity. And here in Paul’s letter, he takes us—the virgin Christian believers in the city of Philippi, and by extension you and me here two thousand years later—into this herculean list that has inspired and challenged and convinced and convicted the Body of Christ. And please count up with me these eight important challenges. Here they are: “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.” In the familiar King James: “Think on THESE things.”
And those last four words, “Think on these things,” take us a long ways beyond those bootlegged Titanic videos or the R-rated scenes they snip out of the in-flight entertainment films you see on American Airlines. Because as admirable as it might be for a person to want those 30 seconds removed from a three-hour-and-twenty-minute motion picture, the heart of Philippians 4:8 isn’t simply in the movies playing down at the local cineplex. There are many, many scenes flickering in those ten auditoriums which fall short of this amazing verse, and we all know it. There are uncounted scenes on television, every single day and night of the week, where untrue things, and ignoble scenes, and elements of wrongness, are beamed into our homes. And the Christian who spends money at the mall theater, or who buys a cable signal or a satellite dish, has an obligation to consider this verse of Scripture. If you’re a person who reads books or magazines, or plays video games, or even engages in conversation and the so-called water-cooler talk, this passage in the Bible has something compelling to say to us.
But there’s more. Because Paul writes here also about our thoughts, the images we allow to live in our brains 24 hours a day. The words that we formulate in our minds and then express—or maybe don’t express. The daydreams we dream, the fantasies we consider, the mental pictures we form. The emotions we cling to, the attitudes we build up as part of what makes us US.
You know, as we move through this list of eight guidelines, there’s a kind of duality that exists here. Think with me just about that first one, that word: TRUE. “Whatsoever things are true.” And obviously, that challenge invades every single aspect of our thinking: what we say, what we look at, what we read, how we talk, how we testify in court. And yet there’s a higher level here to consider, where we are invited to also think about TRUTH. “Think about TRUTH,” Paul invites us. Meaning the great truths about God and His Son and His Church and His kingdom. We need to not only stay away from unholy thoughts—we need to focus our minds on kingdom thoughts.
In our Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary for Philippians, an excellent volume, the scholars make this point: “This [the word “true”] should not be limited to mere veracity. The scriptural concept of truth is derived from an understanding of the nature of God and Christ, who are the authors of all that is true. In this light, ‘whatsoever things are true’ refers to all that is morally and spiritually sound, all that is compatible with allegiance to Him who IS ‘the truth.”
And they take us back to John 14:6, where Jesus tells His followers: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
You know, this concept of focusing on truth is such a Magna Carta for our church and especially for me as your pastor. God didn’t place me here in this pulpit just to make sure that all of my illustrations and stories are fact-checked and that the historical references and sports anecdotes have the accurate number of RBIs and strikeouts. This verse isn’t just telling me, “Pastor NAME, make sure that all of the verse references you put up on the Powerpoint screen are accurate.”
No, it’s much more than that! This church has been commissioned by God to be in this place and to share true TRUTH, Bible TRUTH, principles about God and His Son, Jesus Christ, that are truth. There are times when I get e-mails from one of you, and you very kindly say: “I think you missed one last Sabbath. Did you check such-and-such verse? How does that square with what you said?” Believe me, those are sober moments for me, and I dive back into my own Bible to check and see. Certainly we all do miss truth sometimes, because we’re all human beings. But we don’t want to miss truth; we don’t want to deviate from what Paul is saying here in the first line of verse eight. We’re committed to finding and accepting every word of truth that God has given us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
And all through the rest of this wonderful verse, the same dual challenge is laid before us. “Think about things that are pure,” Paul writes. And maybe we should all buy the expurgated edition of Titanic and sell off at a garage sale some of the other DVDs we own. Maybe we should cancel a few magazine subscriptions. Perhaps we should prayerfully think about the kinds of conversations we have with each other, even around the church potluck table. But in our study of the things of God, as we explore Bible concepts and think about religious topics, are we looking there as well for purity? You know, I’ve encountered impurity in fellowship study groups and in sermons and in church politics. Sometimes, to my shame, I’ve participated in those things. We’ve all had impure motives, even in dealing with spiritual challenges. And Paul, all through these New Testament writings, warns again and again about people who would come into these fledgling Christian churches and bring impure doctrine. Or impure agendas. Or impure goals and motivations. So here he says to us: “Think about pure things, both as you read your TV Guide and as you attend prayer meeting.”
And these other words: “Whatever is NOBLE.” I praise God when I see evidence of nobleness—of growing nobleness—in the lives of our church family. When I see a kind of kingly unselfishness. When I witness acts of service that are gracious and elegant. We should be thinking about noble ideals all the time.
Here are the other words Paul lifts up for us. And you know, one of the reasons why I am a Christian today, why I believe the Word of God is true, is that it challenges us to strive for greatness. The Bible is a noble book, isn’t it? But listen to this: “Whatever is RIGHT.” “Whatever is LOVELY.” “Whatever is ADMIRABLE.” You know, it might be a good idea just to put this verse in front of our own eyes every single day of the year. And ask God: “Lord, help me to keep my mind in these arenas. In fact, Lord, please . . . You help guide my mind toward things like You’ve challenged me to consider. All day today, Lord, please control my mind.”
The Christian writer C. S. Lewis spent years writing letters to a struggling believer who lived in America. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Letters to an American Woman. But she was a fragile Christian who struggled with feelings of bitterness and resentment. She had enemies, and her mind seemed to naturally gravitate toward her hurt feelings and her thirst for revenge. And at one point, as Lewis sensed her dysfunction and her sorrow, he gently reminded her that her anger was like a thorn embedded in her flesh. Yes, it would be good to get to the EmergiCare center and have it taken it, but if that wasn’t possible, she could at least stop pressing on the wound. She could stop caressing her turbulent feelings and rehearsing her list of grievances. “Just say a quick prayer for your enemies, and then direct your mind to better things,” he advised. And you know, it’s true: we can control what we choose to think about! We don’t have to be slaves to unholy and un-admirable ideas.
One of these words toward the close of Paul’s list is a nice word, but perhaps one you never thought had moral or spiritual significance. “If anything is EXCELLENT,” Paul writes, “think about things like that.” And maybe it escapes us that the people of God ought to embrace excellent dreams, and say excellent things, and think excellent thoughts. We should be connoisseurs of the fine things in life, especially in our thinking. People sometimes talk, while rolling their eyes, about “high-minded” ideals. But shouldn’t excellence, a high mind, be the goal in our thinking?
In a recent presidential election, one of the candidates took some criticism for the fact that he was considered “elite.” He had gone to the best schools and had achieved an elite education. His tastes in literature and companions seemed to be “elite” as well.
Well, we notice that Jesus always hung around with common people and seemed to love them. But at the same time, His preaching was “elite” in the finest sense of the word; it was imbued with grace and elegant purity. His teaching lifted people higher and gave them something meaty and refreshing to think about. People were elevated just by being near Jesus.
Again, as I go into my study each week and begin to prepare my sermon, I want to invite Paul’s words to lift me higher. Every week, for these 30 (or so) minutes, I want God to keep it fresh in my mind and heart that even the sermon message should be striving for excellence. It’s my humble prayer that this time of study should be bathed by diligent Bible study, and well-chosen texts, and pertinent illustrations, and a solid time of prayer and spiritual preparation before 11:00 a.m. arrives. Now sometimes I succeed in that, and sometimes I fall short. But to drive here to this sacred place and take a lazy, half-baked approach, to say, “Well, I’ll just wing it this week because there was a school board meeting and a funeral and a work bee and a lot of other stuff going on,” is to fail to take seriously this invitation to “think about excellence.”
Well, you know, our loving Lord has plenty here for each one of us; that’s for sure. We could probably make a pretty long list under each of the eight ways we need for God to help us do better. On the other hand, you might be tempted to think: “Really, what’s the difference? This isn’t murder or adultery; it’s just what we think about.” Harmless daydreams, maybe. A few quick minutes of R-rated Internet fun. But you know, the mind certainly links to the rest of what we do and how we live, doesn’t it? The New International Version’s text notes don’t mince any words when they comment on this: “Paul understood,” they write, “the influence of one’s thoughts on one’s life. What a person allows to occupy his mind will sooner or later determine his speech and his actions. Paul’s exhortation to ‘think about such things’”—or the King James expression, “think on these things”—is followed by a second exhortation, ‘put it into practice.’”
And maybe you recall the verse, Proverbs 23:7, which is sometimes wonderfully true and sometimes painfully true: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” We all realize that we ARE what we think about. The thoughts in my mind are so much more important than the shape of the nose on my face.
Well, you know, that’s how vital all of this is. But as we close, let me invite you to join me in simply thinking about a person who might live this way. Picture an ideal friend whose conversations with you, whose notes to you, whose hallway greetings to you, always matched these high ideals. What would it be like to have a friend whose every nudge of influence in your life made you good and kind and noble and holy? Listen again as we get a word picture of this friend as expressed through the Clear Word paraphrase: “Finally, my brothers, FILL YOUR MINDS with things that are true, honest and just. Think about things that are noble, pure and lovely. Focus on good reports about others.” Wouldn’t you like a friend like that? “If any good has happened or there’s any reason to praise man or God, think about those things.”
It sounds so impossible, doesn’t it? The mind is such a slippery thing, so determined in its naughtiness, so subject to the downward path of moral gravity. We all are fallen creatures. We catch ourselves in a downward spiral many times each day. In fact, I don’t think I would dare to read to you verse eight—unless just five verses later I also found verse 13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Shall we pray?
Father in heaven, You’ve given us a herculean challenge here—to think like Your Son Jesus thinks. To be holy as He is. To exhibit loveliness in all of our words and deeds and thoughts and impulses . . . just like Jesus did for 33 years. In our own power, we’re more than hopeless and helpless, but Lord, we claim Your promise of assistance and Your guarantee of victory. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.