8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you. [NASB ‘77]
Paul continues with his imperatives toward Christian living. A believer who understands who he is in Christ and who lives with the mind of Christ will rejoice, be unassuming and humble, and give his worries to God through prayer. He will also think and act biblically. The one of whom these traits are true will enjoy both God’s peace and God’s presence. Thus, a certain circular logic is present in these verses. If we live as verses 4-9 require, we’ll enjoy the peace of God and the presence of the God of peace. But to live this way requires the Spirit’s ongoing ministry in our lives. So we enjoy God’s presence as a result of living in a way that requires God’s presence.
Verse 8 flows out of the closing thought of verse 7. In that verse Paul says the peace of God – which He gives us when we take our anxieties to Him in prayer – guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. That it guards our minds leads directly into verse 8. It makes sense that if we have God’s peace filling our mind to calm our anxious thoughts, we will then think as we ought. And that’s what Paul commands here. We’re to think in a way that honors God.
The Bible has much to say about how we think. Paul tells the Romans they must keep their minds renewed so they don’t become conformed to the world – And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2). He also tells them to think correctly so they don’t have an inflated view of themselves in the community of faith – For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith (Rom 12:3). He tells the Corinthians they must control their thoughts – We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (II Cor 10:5). And Jesus blesses those who serve God both with their outward actions and their minds – Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).
Why is there so much in the Bible about proper thinking? Because every action – wrong or right – starts in the mind. What we think ultimately becomes how we act and who we are. How we act may condemn us, but our actions are only the result of a process that begins in our thoughts. James makes this very point – But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:14-15). Peter makes the same point – Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul (I Pet 2:11). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with the same message – For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil (Matt 12:34b-35). It’s why Jesus equates lusting with adultery in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:27-28), and why He says the following to those who condemn the disciples for being unclean outwardly – But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders (Matt 15:18-19). Nothing happens but that it starts in the mind. It’s why we’re warned continually to watch it and guard it.
Probably the best summary of all the Bible says about our thinking is this – Set your minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth (Col 3:2). Paul already told the Philippians that the enemies of the cross set their minds on earthly things (3:19). As those who stand at the foot of the cross, we’re to have our minds set exactly the opposite way. Which brings us to verse 8. This is really a description of what setting our minds on things above looks like. We’re to let our minds dwell on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and that are of good repute and excellent and worthy of praise.
What meet all these criteria? Things that are above. Things that are of God. God Himself. Paul calls us to think biblically, to think godly, to think in light of the gospel. The specific descriptions aren’t as important as the whole of the teaching. We’re to dwell on eternal things – things that have value in the kingdom. We’re to dwell on the beauty of the Savior and His grace. We’re to dwell on His love, His mercy, His sacrifice, His holiness and faithfulness – everything that makes Him God and Redeemer. We’re to fill our minds with HIM.
How to do this? Through studying and meditating and listening to His word. Through worship and fellowship with the saints. Through prayer. Through training our minds and filling our minds with the word. There isn’t magic to this. It’s time spent focused on God and His work and His message and His attributes and His nature. We can’t think as Paul commands apart from time with God.
How not to do this? Spend the majority of our time focusing on what’s around us and ourselves. Soak up the messages of the world. Spend chunks of idle time watching TV and surfing the internet. Dwarf the time spent in the word with time spent in the world. Consider the following two verses: But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (I Cor 2:14). For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:5-8). If we spend time the same way as a natural man with his mind set on the flesh, we can’t expect to dwell on the virtuous things of the kingdom.
Do we have a hard time keeping our thoughts pure when we’re not otherwise occupied? Is personal worship foreign to us? Does spontaneously talking about our faith seem odd and uncomfortable? Is fellowshipping with the saints a burden? Do we have little desire to pursue God through His word? Is obeying God out of love for Him a concept that has very little meaning in our day-to-day lives? Do we typically forget everything we’ve heard at church by the time we pull in our driveway? Then we likely have minds filled with earthly things. The battle for righteous living is ultimately a battle for the mind, and we need to consider how outrageously illogical it is to try to please God with minds continually fed on things that wage war against our soul.
We are to DWELL on the things Paul lists in verse 8. This is to be our default setting. Our mind should rest on these things when it’s not otherwise engaged. It should see all of life through these things when it IS engaged. It should be full of what’s biblical and beautiful and eternal. And that happens only through how we fill it and focus it and through the ministry of the Spirit in our lives.
The bottom line is that we’ll dwell on what’s there. If our mind is full of earthly things we’ll dwell on earthly things. If our mind is full of eternal things we’ll dwell on eternal things (always understanding that the enemy will never stop fighting us for every inch of ground).
How we think leads to how we act. That’s why verse 9 follows verse 8 (it’s insight like this that you can’t really get anywhere else). We have to think correctly before we can act correctly (at least in the long run). Therefore, Paul can say what he says in verse 9 because of his command in verse 8. Our godly thinking must result in godly behavior.
He actually repeats in this verse what he said in 3:17 – we are to follow his example and his teaching. He holds himself out as a model for how they should live. Note that it’s not just his life, but his entire ministry too. It’s what they’ve learned, received, heard, and seen. It’s everything about Paul and his witness and teaching.
For our purposes, what he really says here is that we are to follow the word. What is Paul’s teaching? It’s the word of God as expressed in Paul’s letters in the New Testament. So when Paul says to live the way we’ve learned through him, it means to follow everything written in scripture.
For a more specific view of what Paul means, we can look at 3:1-14. That’s Paul’s life and ministry in fourteen verses, and a picture of how we should live. We should worship in the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (vs 3). We should count all things that are apart from God or that represent our own righteousness as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ (vs 8). Our goal should be to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that we may attain to the resurrection from the dead (vss 10-11). We should humbly acknowledge that we’ll never fully reach our goal of becoming like Christ, but we should also never stop pressing on so that we may lay hold of Him (vss 12-14). All these things describe Paul’s life and teaching and should be what characterize our lives as members of Christ’s body.
That they should characterize us is shown by his use of the word practice. Just like with dwell in verse 8, these actions should be our default setting. These aren’t character qualities that define us sometimes; they should really be who we are most of the time. We’re to continually live this way.
If we think and live as Paul commands, the God of peace will be with us. Notice how this goes along with the promise of verse 7. There Paul said the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. Here it’s the God of peace. In one case God gives us His peace as a result of prayer. Here he gives us Himself as a result of obedience. When we walk with Him and seek to know Him and obey Him, He promises to be with us every step of the way. Even more, there seems to be a promise that we’ll know He’s with us. He’ll be with us and make Himself known to us.
And that’s the part of this that’s wonderful to consider. God’s promise is conditional. If we walk in a way that honors Him He’ll be with us. That’s the promise. But the implication of the promise is that if we don’t walk obediently He won’t be with us. And that’s pretty hardcore. But here’s the encouragement. To walk – and think – as Paul commands in these verses presupposes the Spirit’s presence and strength and ministry in our lives. We simply can’t do this without Him. And if that’s the case, it means the Spirit leads us to God and ensures God’s peace and presence in our lives. He ministers to us such that we live in a way that brings God’s presence into our lives. So we require God’s presence to live in a way that ensures God’s presence. God brings us to God. We’re responsible, but we’re not responsible alone.
And remember, He’s our FATHER. No father wants his kids to disobey or go astray. Don’t read this verse and think of God sitting back and seeing if we’re worth His time on any given day. That’s not God’s posture toward us any more than it’s any good father’s approach to his kids. What Paul’s teaching points to is our daily communing with God, and that’s logically at risk if we’re pursuing everything other than Him. We can’t expect to fellowship and walk with God and sense His presence in our lives if our desires and affections are continually placed elsewhere. But by the same token, He loves us and wants us to be with Him and enjoy Him. He never asks us to prove ourselves to Him (since that’s impossible). He asks us to pursue Him and love Him and allow Him to invade our lives.
Remember what we said at the beginning of the study of verses 4-7? We said that Paul doesn’t so much give us a list of commands in those verses as he describes what a life should look like when it’s committed to Christ. That description applies to these verses too. The ultimate command here is to understand what our status is in Christ and live accordingly. When we do that, we’ll rejoice in the Lord, we’ll let our forbearing spirit be known to all men in expectation of the Lord’s return, we’ll cast our anxiety on Him and experience His peace, we’ll dwell on the things of His kingdom, and we’ll walk in a way that ensures His presence in our lives.
That said, we have a responsibility to govern our lives such that these things are possible. We simply cannot expect to live as Paul commands with minds planted firmly in this world and eyes full of what they can see rather than what we know to be true. If we spend most of our time and energy on the priorities and rewards of earth, we won’t think and act righteously. The Spirit gives us strength and helps our weaknesses and prays for us, but how we manage our time is on us. If we don’t use time for prayer and study and meditation and worship, we kid ourselves to think the Spirit will overcome that and bring us to Him.
But what an incentive to manage that time! If we live as Paul commands, if we think as Paul commands, if we pray as Paul commands, we have God’s promise that He’ll give us His peace and His presence. God’s peace and God’s presence. Is there anything in the world that compares to that? Look what we miss when we get sidetracked by the passing pleasures of this life! God promises us one of His attributes and HIMSELF. Surely that should motivate us to dwell on Him and stand firm.